Skip to main content

Cash, John R. ("Johnny")

CASH, John R. ("Johnny")

(b. 26 February 1932 in Kings-land, Arkansas), country music legend, songwriter, and actor, known for hits like "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line."

Cash, the fourth of seven children born to sharecroppers Ray Cash and Carrie Rivers, grew up with cotton fields and Southern Baptists, music and religion. Cash was already singing and writing songs when he was twelve years old. Everyone in the Cash family sang, but, according to Johnny's mother, he had "the gift," and so she did laundry to earn money for his singing lessons.

In 1950 Cash joined the U.S. Air Force and was sent to radio operator school. Stationed in Landsberg, Germany, with the Security Service as a radio intercept operator, he demonstrated a special talent for Russian Morse Code. The air force promoted him to staff sergeant early in hopes of enticing him to reenlist, but the strategy did not work, and Cash was honorably discharged in 1954.

Once back in the United States, Cash married Vivian Liberto, with whom he had corresponded during his time in Germany. The couple moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and Cash took a job as a salesman. Miserable in that career, he continued to pursue music. In 1954 he took his first steps toward a music career when he traveled to Corinth, Mississippi, to see John Bell of WMCA radio. Even though Cash had no experience, Bell was polite and encouraged him to attend Keegan's School of Broadcasting in Memphis. Cash took Bell's advice and enrolled part time. At this same time, Cash's brother introduced him to two other aspiring musicians, Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins. Soon the trio was playing local events in North Memphis.

In 1955 the group took their music to Sam Phillips's Sun Records and eventually earned a contract. Cash's first two songs, "Hey Porter" and "Cry, Cry, Cry," were hits. In 1956 he finally achieved national recognition with "I Walk the Line" and began a string of television appearances.

In 1958 Cash signed with Columbia Records in order to record more gospel and moved his family to Ventura, California. He had taken his first "pep pill" in 1957 and had become addicted to amphetamines by 1960. The drugs Cash took were common prescription medicines, but he took so many it created a powerful psychological dependence. Cash believed the pills (usually diet pills) gave him the energy and confidence to be a better performer. As he took more pills, he found he needed barbiturates to come down from the effects of the amphetamines. His drug abuse worsened, and Cash became moody and unpredictable. Unable to sleep or eat, at six feet, one inch tall, Cash dropped to 155 pounds. Despite the drugs, Cash recorded seven albums in the 1960s, and his hit "Ring of Fire" (1963), went to number one on the pop and country and western charts. His musical success, however, was marked with profound personal difficulties.

Early in the 1960s he moved back to Nashville, leaving his wife and their four daughters in California. As Cash began to exhibit the symptoms of addiction, his friends began to try to help him. In particular, June Carter, a member of a popular music family that Cash often toured with, took a special interest in his health, often throwing his pills away. During the 1960s Cash wrecked every car he owned (and some he did not). In 1965 U.S. Customs officials saw him buy drugs from a heroin dealer just across the Mexican border and arrested him; he received a suspended sentence and a fine. A regular at the Grand Ole Opry, Cash was told not to come back after he threw the microphone down and broke stage lights one night in 1965. Later that same night, he wrecked the Cadillac he was driving, breaking his nose and jaw. The drugs also caused Cash to develop severe cases of laryngitis, and he began to cancel entire tours. In 1966 his wife filed for divorce.

Also in the 1960s, Cash was criticized for perceived controversy in his songs. Radio stations refused to play "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," about the Native-American Marine and hero who helped raise the U.S. flag over Iwo Jima during World War II. In 1964 Cash bought a full-page ad in Billboard chastising those disc jockeys. He also wrote songs about the civil rights movement, and in 1966 the Ku Klux Klan began publishing propaganda pieces about Cash and his wife. Despite threats of violence Cash sued the Klan for slander. Cash was also criticized for his explicit lyrics about drugs and violence. Cash's fans paid little attention to the Klan, however, and his career continued to flourish. His style and lyrics were especially popular with convicts, who were his favorite audience. Sympathetic from his few run-ins with the law, Cash performed in prisons throughout his career. When a Georgia prison offered Cash $5,000 to come to sing, he said he would perform free if they would spend the $5,000 on the men.

In 1967 Cash was near death. June Carter and her parents Maybelle and E. J. moved in with him, and stayed through his withdrawal from drugs. The Carters feared for Cash's life and used a mixture of tough love and faith in God to get Johnny through his withdrawals. June threw out all his pills, and when he yelled at her she would calmly read his favorite Bible passages aloud. Once he was thinking clearly again, Cash realized how much the Carters, and June in particular, cared for him, and with their love and a strong faith Cash began to fight his addiction with a new determination. Cash's first performance after his recovery was for a high school fundraiser; it was a success. He continued to stay off drugs, and in 1968 he asked June to marry him during a London, Ontario, concert of 5,000 people. The couple married 1 March 1968 and added a son, John Carter Cash, to the family that included Cash's daughters Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara, as well as June's two daughters Carlene and Rosey. Intensely religious, the family took a vacation to Israel and studied the Bible and Jewish history.

In 1968 Cash recorded the live album At Folsom Prison. Bob Dylan invited him to sing a duet and write liner notes for his album Nashville Skyline, and in June 1969 Dylan appeared in the first segment of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) television show The Johnny Cash Show, which lasted for two years. Also in 1969, "A Boy Named Sue" went to number two and was named single of the year by the Country Music Association (CMA); his album Johnny Cash at San Quentin was number one for four weeks and was named album of the year by CMA; and Cash was named CMA's entertainer of the year. Cash's appeal had spread from country and folk music to rock and pop.

While touring military bases in Vietnam in 1969, Cash caught a fever and was prescribed the same pills he had been addicted to; he subsequently suffered a relapse of his addiction. Exceeding his dosage, drinking, and continuing work, Cash developed pneumonia, but June helped him get healthy again.

During the 1970s Cash's music career continued to flourish. He and June made a documentary, Gospel Road, in Israel (1971), and his hit songs included "A Thing Called Love" (1972) and "One Piece at a Time" (1976). Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded The Survivors in 1982, and, Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson recorded Highwayman in 1985, and Highwayman 2 in 1990. He also starred in a number of westerns for television and movies.

Cash was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, the first performer inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame, and the only one until Elvis Presley was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998. He has won eleven Grammys, including the 1999 Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2002 shared Grammy for best country album. Two of his Grammys came for writing liner notes, for his At Folsom Prison album and Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline.

Cash had another, nearly deadly, case of pneumonia in 1998. In 2001, after a series of misdiagnoses (including Parkinson's disease and the similar Shy-Drager Syndrome) doctors said that Cash suffers from a nervous-system disorder known as autonomic neuropathy, a group of symptoms involving the central nervous system that leaves him extremely vulnerable to pneumonia.

Cash has written two autobiographies: Man In Black (1975) and Cash: The Autobiography, with Patrick Carr (1997). Biographies include Christopher Wren, Winners Got Scars Too: The Life and Legend of Johnny Cash (1971); Cindy Cash, The Cash Family Scrapbook (1997); and Frank Moriarty, Johnny Cash (1997).

Lisa A. Ennis

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Cash, John R. ("Johnny")." Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: The 1960s. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Cash, John R. ("Johnny")." Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: The 1960s. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 19, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cash-john-r-johnny

"Cash, John R. ("Johnny")." Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: The 1960s. . Retrieved November 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cash-john-r-johnny

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.