While labeled a country artist, Johnny Cash was “one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century” WK because of a sound that “spanned many other genres including rockabilly and rock and roll – especially early in his career – as well as blues, folk, and gospel.” WK He even influenced genres such as punk rock with his anti-authoritarian and rebellious image.
Over nearly a fifty-year career, Cash wrote over 1000 songs. WK Thematically, his music often dealt with “themes of sorrow, moral tribulation and redemption.” WK He also had one of the most impressive career resurgences in music history when he released a string of albums with the American label from 1994 to his death in 2003.
Early Years (1933-54):
When his parents couldn’t agree on a name, they christened their son with just the initials J.R. The man we now know as Johnny Cash legally changed his name to John R. Cash when he enlisted in the United States Air Force and they wouldn’t accept only initials for his name. WK He was honorably discharged in 1954.
By five years old, he was working in the cotton fields. In 1944, his older brother Jack was killed when pulled into a whirling table saw while working at a mill. Cash’s strong religious tone in much of his music is inspired not only by listening to a lot of gospel music in his youth but by his dreams of seeing his brother Jack and being eager to see him again in heaven.
In 1951, Cash met Vivian Liberto. “They dated for three weeks, until Cash was deployed to Germany for a three-year tour.” WK They were married one month after his discharge.
Sun Records (1954-58):
After Cash married Liberto, they moved to Memphis and he sold appliances while studying to be a radio announcer. He would play music at night with the Tennessee Two (guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant). They eventually auditioned for Sam Phillips of Sun Records, initially focused on gospel until Phillips convinced Cash it wasn’t marketable.
Cash’s first single was Cry! Cry! Cry!/Hey Porter in 1955. He would go on to have other hits in his short tenure with Sun Records, most notably with the #1 country hit I Walk the Line. He would also record the #1 country hits There You Go, Ballad of a Teenage Queen, and Guess Things Happen That Way while at Sun. Cash also became the first Sun artist to release an LP (long-playing record) in 1957. WK
Early Years at Columbia (1958-66):
In 1958, Cash signed with Columbia Records, landing another #1 country hit with Don’t Take Your Guns to Town. In the early sixties, Cash toured with the Carter family, meeting June Carter, whom he would eventually marry. She penned one of his biggest hits, 1963’s Ring of Fire.
During this part of his career, Cash had problems with alcohol and drugs. In addition, while he never served a prison sentence, he landed in jail seven times for misdemeanors, each time staying in jail for only one night. WK His substance abuse and jail time enhanced what would become an outlaw image.
During the mid-‘60s, Cash recorded a number of concept albums, including tributes to frontier songs and the plight of the Native Americans.
Life on Track (1966-69):
Cash and his first wife divorced in 1966 after years of his drug and alcohol abuse, touring, and affairs had taken their toll. He quit using drugs in 1968 after an attempted suicide that gave him a spiritual awakening. Having agreed to marry him if he cleaned up, June Carter finally married Cash later that year, twelve years after meeting her at the Grand Ole Opry. They were together until her death in 2003. He died four months later.
Because of his compassion for prisoners, Cash recorded two of the most acclaimed live albums ever with two documents of performances at prisons – At Folsom Prison (1968) and At San Quentin (1969).
The Man in Black (1969-80):
In 1969, Cash starred in his own television show. The Johnny Cash Show lasted until 1971 and featured a number of musical guests, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Louis Armstrong, and Kenny Rogers. Kris Kristofferson also got his major break as a singer/ songwriter through the show, most notably when Cash performed Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down without editing out a marijuana reference, much to the chagrin of the network suits.
Cash also started performing dressed all in black, writing the song Man in Black in 1971 to explain that his absence of fancy clothing was in honor of the people held back.
The Highwayman and Hall of Famer (1980-86):
“In 1980, Cash became the Country Music Hall of Fame’s youngest living inductee at age forty-eight, but during the 1980s his records failed to make a major impact on the country charts, although he continued to tour successfully. In the mid 1980s, he recorded and toured with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwaymen, making two hit albums.” WK
“Cash relapsed into addiction after being administered painkillers for a serious abdominal injury in 1983 caused by an unusual incident in which he was kicked and wounded by an ostrich he kept on his farm.” WK
Mercury Records (1986-93):
“At a hospital visit in 1988, this time to watch over Waylon Jennings (who was recovering from a heart attack), Jennings suggested that Cash have himself checked into the hospital for his own heart condition. Doctors recommended preventive heart surgery, and Cash underwent double bypass surgery in the same hospital. Both recovered, although Cash refused to use any prescription painkillers, fearing a relapse into dependency.” WK
During this same time, Cash severed his 30-year relationship with the Columbia label and jumped to Mercury. This didn’t produce any major hits, either in song or album. He did, however, lend his vocals to U2’s song The Wanderer, a track on their 1993 Zooropa album.
American Recordings (1993-2003):
Famed producer Rick Rubin, best known for rap and hard rock, approached Cash about producing him. In Cash’s lifetime, they teamed to create four albums built largely on unusual cover choices performed in a primarily stripped-down format that highlighted Cash’s distinct, but obviously aging, voice. The albums marked one of the greatest musical resurgences in history.
One of the song’s recorded for his American IV: The Man Comes Around album (2002) was a cover of industrial rock band Nine Inch Nail’s song Hurt. Accompanied by a powerful video that showed a visibly feeble Cash reflecting on his life and regrets, the song effectively became his epitaph after he died in 2003.
Posthumous Work (2004-2010):
Rubin and Cash had enough material in the vaults to produce two more albums in the American series. 2006’s American V: A Hundred Highways topped the Billboard album charts, making for only his second time on top of that chart, the first being 1969’s San Quentin album. A box set effectively added another four albums to Cash’s American output, along with a fifth disc that compiled the best of his first four albums.
Other Cash-related work of note that has developed since his death includes the well-received biopic movie I Walk the Line, featuring Joaquin Phoenix’s award-winning performance as Cash. In 2006, a musical (Ring of Fire) based on Cash’s music opened on Broadway, but lasted only six weeks.