Cash was born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, one of seven children born to Ray Cash (May 13, 1897, Kingsland, Arkansas – December 23, 1985, Hendersonville, Tennessee) and Carrie Cloveree (née Rivers; March 13, 1904, Rison, Arkansas – March 11, 1991, Hendersonville, Tennessee). At birth, he was named J. R. Cash. When Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force, he was not permitted to use initials as a first name, so he changed his name to John R. Cash. In 1955, when signing with Sun Records, he took Johnny Cash as his stage name.
The Cash children were: Roy, Margaret Louise, Jack, J. R., Reba, Joanne, and Tommy. His younger brother, Tommy Cash, also became a successful country artist.
In March 1935, when Cash was three years old, the family settled in Dyess, Arkansas. He started working in cotton fields at age five, singing along with his family while working. The family farm was flooded on at least two occasions, which later inspired him to write the song "Five Feet High and Rising". His family's economic and personal struggles during the Great Depression inspired many of his songs, especially those about other people facing similar difficulties.
Cash was very close to his older brother, Jack. In May 1944, Jack was pulled into a whirling head saw in the mill where he worked and was almost cut in two. He suffered for over a week before he died on May 20, 1944, at age 15. Cash often spoke of the horrible guilt he felt over this incident. According to Cash: The Autobiography, his father was away that morning, but he and his mother, and Jack himself, all had premonitions or a sense of foreboding about that day, causing his mother to urge Jack to skip work and go fishing with his brother. Jack insisted on working, as the family needed the money. On his deathbed, Jack said he had visions of Heaven and angels. Decades later, Cash spoke of looking forward to meeting his brother in Heaven.
Cash's early memories were dominated by gospel music and radio. Taught guitar by his mother and a childhood friend, Cash began playing and writing songs at the age of twelve. When Cash was young, he had a high tenor voice, before becoming a bass-baritone. In high school he sang on a local radio station; decades later he released an album of traditional gospel songs, called My Mother's Hymn Book. He was also significantly influenced by traditional Irish music that he heard performed weekly by Dennis Day on the Jack Benny radio program.
Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force on July 7, 1950. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and technical training at Brooks Air Force Base, both in San Antonio, Texas, Cash was assigned to the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile of the U.S. Air Force Security Service at Landsberg, Germany as a Morse Code Intercept Operator forSoviet Army transmissions. It was there he created his first band, named "The Landsberg Barbarians". He was the first radio operator to pick up the news of the death ofJoseph Stalin.He was honorably discharged as a Staff Sergeant on July 3, 1954, and returned to Texas.
On July 18, 1951, while in Air Force training, Cash met 17-year-old Vivian Liberto at a roller skating rink in her native San Antonio. They dated for three weeks, until Cash was deployed to Germany for a three-year tour. During that time, the couple exchanged hundreds of pages of love letters. On August 7, 1954, one month after his discharge, they were married at St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church in San Antonio. The ceremony was performed by her uncle, Father Vincent Liberto. They had four daughters: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. Liberto stated that Cash's drug and alcohol abuse as well as constant touring, affairs with other women, and his close relationship with June Carter led her to file for divorce in 1966.
Cash's career was handled by Saul Holiff, a London, Ontario, promoter and this relationship was the subject of Saul's son's biopic My Father and the Man in Black.
In 1968, 13 years after they first met backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, Cash proposed to June Carter, of the famed Carter Family, during a live performance in London, Ontario. The couple married on March 1, 1968, in Franklin, Kentucky. They had one child together, John Carter Cash, born March 3, 1970. Cash and Carter continued to work together and tour for 35 years until June's death in May 2003. Cash died four months later the same year.
In 1954, Cash and Vivian moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he sold appliances while studying to be a radio announcer. At night he played with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. Perkins and Grant were known as the Tennessee Two. Cash worked up the courage to visit the Sun Records studio, hoping to get a recording contract. After auditioning for Sam Phillips, singing mostly gospel songs, Phillips told him that he didn't record gospel music any longer. It was once rumored that Phillips told Cash to "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell", although in a 2002 interview Cash denied that Phillips made any such comment. Cash eventually won over the producer with new songs delivered in his early rockabilly style. In 1955, Cash made his first recordings at Sun, "Hey Porter" and "Cry! Cry! Cry!", which were released in late June and met with success on the country hit parade.
On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley dropped in on Phillips while Carl Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks, with Jerry Lee Lewisbacking him on piano. Cash was also in the studio and the four started an impromptu jam session. Phillips left the tapes running and the recordings, almost half of which were gospel songs, survived and have since been released under the title Million Dollar Quartet. In Cash: the Autobiography, Cash wrote that he was the one farthest from the microphone and was singing in a higher pitch to blend in with Elvis.
Cash's next record, "Folsom Prison Blues", made the country Top 5, and "I Walk the Line" became No. 1 on the country charts and entered the pop charts Top 20. "Home of the Blues" followed, recorded in July 1957. That same year Cash became the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album. Although he was Sun's most consistently selling and prolific artist at that time, Cash felt constrained by his contract with the small label partly due to the fact that Phillips wasn't keen on Johnny recording gospel, and he was getting only a 3% royalty as opposed to the standard rate of 5%. Presley had already left Sun, and Phillips was focusing most of his attention and promotion on Lewis. The following year, Cash left the label to sign a lucrative offer withColumbia Records, where his single "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" became one of his biggest hits and his second album for Columbia was a collection of gospel songs. However, Cash left behind a sufficient backlog of recordings with Sun that Phillips continued to release new singles and even albums featuring previously unreleased material until as late as 1964, placing Cash in the unusual position of having new releases out on two labels concurrently, with one 1960 release, a cover of "Oh Lonesome Me" making as high as No. 13 on the C&W charts. (Unlike when RCA Victor signed Presley and also bought his Sun Records masters, when Cash departed for Columbia, Phillips retained the rights to Cash's Sun masters; Columbia would eventually license some of these recordings for release on compilations after Cash's death.)
Early in his career, he was given the teasing nickname The Undertaker by fellow artists because of his habit of wearing black clothes - though he did so only because they were easier to keep looking clean on long tours.
In the early 1960s, Cash toured with the Carter Family, which by this time regularly included Mother Maybelle's daughters, Anita, June andHelen. June later recalled admiring him from afar during these tours. In the 1960s, he appeared on Pete Seeger's short lived television seriesRainbow Quest. He also acted in and wrote and sang the opening theme for a 1961 film entitled Five Minutes to Live, later re-released asDoor-to-door Maniac.
As his career was taking off in the late 1950s, Cash started drinking heavily and became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates. For a brief time, he shared an apartment in Nashville with Waylon Jennings, who was heavily addicted to amphetamines. Cash used the uppers to stay awake during tours. Friends joked about his "nervousness" and erratic behavior, many ignoring the warning signs of his worsening drug addiction. In a behind-the-scenes look at The Johnny Cash Show, Cash claims to have "tried every drug there was to try."
Although he was in many ways spiraling out of control, Cash's frenetic creativity was still delivering hits. His rendition of "Ring of Fire" was a crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and entering the Top 20 on the pop charts. The song was written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore. It was originally performed by June's sister, but the signaturemariachi-style horn arrangement was provided by Cash, who said that it had come to him in a dream. Vivian Liberto claimed a different version of the origins of "Ring of Fire". In her book, I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny, Liberto states that Cash gave Carter the credit for monetary reasons.
In June 1965, his truck caught fire due to an overheated wheel bearing, triggering a forest fire that burnt several hundred acres in Los Padres National Forest in California.When the judge asked Cash why he did it, Cash said, "I didn't do it, my truck did, and it's dead, so you can't question it." The fire destroyed 508 acres (206 ha), burning the foliage off three mountains and driving off 49 of the refuge's 53 endangered condors. Cash was unrepentant and claimed, "I don't care about your damn yellow buzzards." The federal government sued him and was awarded $125,172 ($939,914 in 2015 dollars). Cash eventually settled the case and paid $82,001. He said he was the only person ever sued by the government for starting a forest fire.
Although Cash carefully cultivated a romantic outlaw image, he never served a prison sentence. Despite landing in jail seven times for misdemeanors, each stay lasted only a single night. His most infamous run-in with the law occurred while on tour in 1965, when he was arrested October 4 by a narcotics squad in El Paso, Texas. The officers suspected he was smuggling heroin from Mexico, but found instead 688 Dexedrine capsules (amphetamines) and 475 Equanil (sedatives or tranquilizers) tablets that the singer had hidden inside his guitar case. Because the pills were prescription drugs rather than illegal narcotics, he received a suspended sentence.
Cash had also been arrested on May 11, 1965, in Starkville, Mississippi, for trespassing late at night onto private property to pick flowers. (This incident gave the spark for the song "Starkville City Jail", which he discussed on his live At San Quentin album.) In the mid-1960s, Cash released a number of concept albums, including Sings the Ballads of the True West (1965), an experimental double record mixing authentic frontier songs with Cash's spoken narration, and Bitter Tears (1964), with songs highlighting the plight of the Native Americans. His drug addiction was at its worst at this point, and his destructive behavior led to a divorce from his first wife and canceled performances. Nonetheless, he continued to find success and in 1967, Cash's duet with June Carter, "Jackson", won a Grammy Award.
Cash's final arrest was in 1967 in Walker County, Georgia, after being involved in a car accident while carrying a bag of prescription pills. Cash attempted to bribe a local deputy, who turned the money down, and then spent the night in a LaFayette, Georgia, jail. The singer was released after a long talk with Sheriff Ralph Jones, who warned him of his dangerous behavior and wasted potential. Cash credited that experience for saving his life, and he later came back to LaFayette to play a benefit concert that attracted 12,000 people (the city population was less than 9,000 at the time) and raised $75,000 for the high school. Reflecting on his past in a 1997 interview, Cash noted: “I was taking the pills for awhile, and then the pills started taking me."
Cash curtailed his use of drugs for several years in 1968, after a spiritual epiphany in the Nickajack Cave, when he attempted to commit suicide while under the heavy influence of drugs. He descended deeper into the cave, trying to lose himself and "just die", when he passed out on the floor. He reported being exhausted and feeling at the end of his rope when he felt God's presence in his heart and managed to struggle out of the cave (despite the exhaustion) by following a faint light and slight breeze. To him, it was his own rebirth. June, Maybelle, and Ezra Carter moved in to Cash's mansion for a month to help him conquer his addiction. Cash proposed onstage to June at a concert at the London Gardens in London, Ontario, Canada, on February 22, 1968; the couple married a week later (on March 1) in Franklin, Kentucky. She had agreed to marry Cash after he had "cleaned up".
He rediscovered his Christian faith, taking an "altar call" in Evangel Temple, a small church in the Nashville area, pastored by Reverend Jimmie Rodgers Snow, son of country music legend Hank Snow. According to longtime friend Marshall Grant, Cash's 1968 rebirth experience did not result in his completely stopping use of amphetamines. However, beginning in 1970, Cash ended all drug use for a period of seven years. Grant claims that the birth of Cash's son, John Carter Cash, inspired Cash to end his dependence. Cash began using amphetamines again in 1977. By 1983, he was once again addicted, and entered the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, California for rehabilitation. Cash managed to stay off drugs for several years, but by 1989, he was dependent again and entered Nashville's Cumberland Heights Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center. In 1992, he entered the Loma Linda Behavioral Medicine Centre in Loma Linda, California, for his final rehabilitation (several months later, his son followed him into this facility for