Johnny Cash with June Carter Cash singing “Jackson”
Perhaps one of the most influential country music artists in history, Johnny Cash hailed from Kingsland, Arkansas. He was the fourth of seven children and was taught guitar by his mother, Carrie. Cash grew up during the time of The Great Depression, which is why his music often reflected sympathy for the working class. Beginning at the young age of five, Johnny worked in the cotton fields with his siblings to help his large family make ends meet. Singing was a common hobby that he and his siblings used during the long days of labor and his experiences from this time in his life were often a direct source of his inspiration for his songwriting. For example, “Five Feet High and Rising” was written about a flood he lived through.
As a young adult, Cash enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. His birth name was legally “J.R.” which was not accepted as a first name in the military, so he changed it to John R. Cash to fit the Air Force guidelines. In 1955, when he signed a record deal with Sun Records, he began using the name “Johnny.” Cash auditioning several times for Sam Philips before he was offered a recording contract. The two songs that eventually sealed the deal were “Hey Porter” and “Cry! Cry! Cry!”–both found success on the country charts.
In 1956, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash were all in the studio at the same time, and it ended up in an impromptu jam session that Phillips recorded (the songs that were captured have since been released as the Million Dollar Quartet). Cash’s next record, Folsom Prison Blues,included his hit “I Walk the Line” which managed to reach number one on the country charts and even made an appearance in the top-twenty on the pop charts.
In 1969, “The Johnny Cash Show” aired on ABC. The show featured live performances by main-stream country acts and always began with a performance by Cash himself. By the 1970’s, Cash became known as “The Man in Black” due to his reliable tendency to show up wearing all black wherever he performed. In 1980, Cash became the youngest living inductee of the Country Music Hall of Fame at the age of 48. During this decade, he also recorded and toured with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristoffereson in a supergroup known as “The Highwaymen.” Together, they released three albums: Highwayman 1 (1985) went platinum in the US and Australia, and gold in Canada; Highwayman 2 (1990) garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Country Vocal Collaboration; The Road Goes on Forever(2002) shortly before Waylon’s death.
In 2003, before his death, Johnny released the video and single, “Hurt,” a single originally released by Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor. The video was so impactful, NME considered it “one of the greatest of all time.” The video received wide acclaim and earned six MTV Video Award nominations, including Video of the Year, Best Male Video, Best Direction, Best Art Direction, Best Editing and taking home Best Cinematography. It also took home Music video of the Year honors by the CMA. Reznor praised Cash’s Interpretation of the song for its “sincerity and meaning,” going as far as to say “that song isn’t mine anymore.”
Cash passed away in 2003 at the age of 71 and was buried next to his wife June in Hendersonville, Tennessee. With so many amazing years of a music career behind him, there is much more to learn about Johnny Cash. Please visit https://www.johnnycashmuseum.com online or in person to learn more about his legacy.