Johnny Cash Biography

26 February 1932, Kingsland, Arkansas, USA, d. 12 September 2003, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. One of the giants of American music, Cash made over 70 albums of original material, plus countless guest appearances. His music reflected his love of America, his compassion, his love of life, and, what is often lacking in country music, a sense of humour. Heeding the advice he was given during his one and only singing lesson, ‘Never change your voice’, Cash’s limited range proved staggeringly impressive on particular songs, especially narrative ones. Like Bo Diddley’s ‘shave and a haircut’ rhythm, he developed his music around his ‘boom chicka boom’, and instilled enough variety to stave off boredom.

Cash traced his ancestry to seventeenth-century Scotland and admitted that he fabricated the much-publicized story that he was a quarter Cherokee. Cash’s father, Ray, worked on sawmills and the railway; in 1936, the family was one of 600 chosen by the Federal Government to reclaim land by the Mississippi River, known as the Dyess Colony Scheme. Much of it was swampland, and in 1937, they were evacuated when the river overflowed. Cash recalled the circumstances in his 1959 country hit ‘Five Foot High And Risin’’. Other songs inspired by his youth are ‘Pickin’ Time’, ‘Christmas As I Knew It’ and ‘Cisco Clifton’s Filling Station’. Rockabilly artist Carl Perkins wrote ‘Daddy Sang Bass’ about Cash’s family and the ‘little brother’ is Jack Cash, who was killed when he fell across an electric saw.

After graduating from Dyess High School in 1950, Cash began work in a car factory in Pontiac, Michigan, before signing up for a stint in the United States Air Force. He was posted to Landsberg, West Germany as a radio intercept officer, eavesdropping on Russian radio traffic. Many thought the scar on his cheek was a knife wound but it was actually the result of a cyst being removed by a drunken doctor, while his hearing was permanently damaged by a German girl playfully sticking a pencil down his left ear. Cash taught himself the guitar while stationed in Germany and played in a bar band called the Landsberg Barbarians. After his discharge, he returned to the US where he settled in Memphis, Tennessee with his bride, Vivian Liberto. One of their four children, Rosanne Cash, also became a country singer.

Struggling to make a living as a household appliance salesman, Cash auditioned as a gospel singer with Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis, who told him to return with something more commercial. Cash developed his ‘boom chicka boom’ sound with two friends: Luther Perkins (b. 8 January 1928, USA, d. 5 August 1968, Tennessee, USA; lead guitar) and Marshall Grant (bass). Their first record, ‘Hey Porter’/‘Cry! Cry! Cry!’, credited to Johnny Cash And The Tennessee Two, was released in June 1955, but Cash was irritated that Phillips had called him ‘Johnny’, as it sounded too young. ‘Cry! Cry! Cry!’ made number 14 on the US country charts and was followed by ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ (featuring one of his most famous lines, ‘Well, I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’), which Cash wrote after seeing a film called Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison. They played shows with another Sun artist, Carl Perkins (no relation to Luther Perkins). Perkins’ drummer, W.S. Holland, joined Cash in 1958 to make it the Tennessee Three. Cash encouraged Perkins to complete the writing of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, while he finished ‘I Walk The Line’ at Perkins’ insistence: ‘I got the idea from a Dale Carnegie course. It taught you to keep your eyes open for something good. I made a love song out of it. It was meant to be a slow, mournful ballad but Sam had us pick up the tempo until I didn’t like it at all.’ ‘I Walk The Line’ reached number 17 on the US pop charts and was the title song for a 1970 movie starring Gregory Peck. Among Cash’s other excellent Sun records are ‘Home Of The Blues’, which was the name of a Memphis record shop, ‘Big River’, ‘Luther Played The Boogie’, ‘Give My Love To Rose’ and ‘There You Go’, which topped the US country charts for five weeks. Producer Jack Clement added piano and vocal chorus. They achieved further pop hits with the high school tale ‘Ballad Of A Teenage Queen’ (number 14), ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’ (number 11) and ‘The Ways Of A Woman In Love’ (number 24). While at Sun Records, Cash wrote ‘You’re My Baby’ and ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Ruby’ which were recorded by Roy Orbison and Warren Smith, respectively.

At a disc jockeys’ convention in Nashville in November 1957, Sun launched their first ever album release, Cash’s With His Hot And Blue Guitar, but Phillips was reluctant to record further LPs with the singer. This, and an unwillingness to increase his royalties, led to Cash relocating to Los Angeles and joining Columbia Records in 1958. His cautionary tale about a gunfighter not listening to his mother, ‘Don’t Take Your Guns To Town’, sold half a million copies and prompted a response from Charlie Rich, ‘The Ballad Of Billy Joe’, which was also recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis. Its b-side, ‘I Still Miss Someone’, is one of Cash’s best compositions, and has been revived by Flatt And Scruggs, Crystal Gayle and Emmylou Harris. In January 1960, Cash played the first of his celebrated prison shows at San Quentin (watched by a temporarily incarcerated Merle Haggard).

Cash started to take amphetamines to help make it through his schedule of 300 shows a year; however, his artistic integrity suffered and he always regarded 1962’s The Sound Of Johnny Cash as his worst album. Nevertheless, he started on an inspiring series of concept albums about the working man (Blood, Sweat And Tears), cowboys (Sings Ballads Of The True West) and the American Indian (Bitter Tears). The concepts are fascinating, the songs excellent, but the albums are bogged down with narration and self-righteousness, making Cash sound like a history teacher. His sympathy for a maligned American Indian, ‘The Ballad Of Ira Hayes’, led to threats from the Ku Klux Klan. Cash stated, ‘I didn’t really care what condition I was in and it showed up on my recordings, but Bitter Tears was so important to me that I managed to get enough sleep to do it right.’ For all his worthy causes, the drugged-up country star was a troublemaker himself, although, despite press reports, he only ever spent three days in prison. In October 1965, he was arrested at El Paso airport and was charged with smuggling amphetamines across the Mexican border. He received a suspended jail sentence and a $1, 000 fine. Cash’s biggest misdemeanour was starting a forest fire for which he was fined $85, 000. He wrecked hotel rooms and toyed with guns, and he and his drinking buddy, country singer Carl Smith, rampaged through Smith’s house and ruined his wife’s Cadillac. Smith’s marriage to June Carter of the Carter Family was nearing its end but at that stage, few could have predicted Carter’s next marriage.

In 1963, Mexican brass was added to Cash’s ominous ‘Ring Of Fire’, written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore, which again was a pop hit. Without Cash’s support, Bob Dylan would have been dropped by Columbia Records, and Cash had his first British hit in 1965 with Dylan’s ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’. Their offbeat duet, ‘Girl From The North Country’, was included on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, and the rest of their sessions have been widely bootlegged. Dylan also gave Cash an unreleased song, ‘Wanted Man’, and Cash wrote the sleeve notes for Nashville Skyline. One of many quotable statements uttered by Cash at this time was, ‘I don’t dance, tell jokes or wear my pants too tight, but I do know about a thousand songs.’ With this in mind, he turned his roadshow into a history of country music. In the 60s it featured Carl Perkins (who also played guitar for Cash after Luther Perkins’ death in a house fire in August 1968), the Statler Brothers and the Carter Family. The highlight of Cash’s act was ‘Orange Blossom Special’ played with two harmonicas. One night Cash, who had recently been divorced by Vivian, proposed to June Carter on stage in London, Ontario; she accepted and they were married on 1 March 1968. From that point, her career naturally run in conjunction with his as she continued to be a regular and expected member of his show. Their successful duets included ‘Jackson’ and ‘If I Were A Carpenter’, and in 1969 they were voted Vocal Group of the Year. Their son John Carter Cash was born the following year, and during their long and happy marriage Cash went on record several times to state that June saved his life, weaning him away from amphetamine addiction and reinforcing his Christian faith.

In 1968 Columbia Records finally agreed to record one of Cash’s prison concerts, and the invigorating At Folsom Prison is one of the most atmospheric of all live albums. It remains, probably, Cash’s best album and a contender for the best country record of all time. Cash explained: ‘Prisoners are the greatest audience that an entertainer can perform for. We bring them a ray of sunshine and they’re not ashamed to show their appreciation.’ The concert took place on 13 January 1968 at Folsom State Prison in Reseda, California, with Cash’s jittery state (he had only just started to kick amphetamines) perfectly complementing the inmates’ boisterous mood. Cash included ‘Greystone Chapel’, written by an inmate, Glen Sherley, which he had been given by the Prison Chaplain. Sherley subsequently recorded an album with Cash’s support, but he died in 1978.

The Folsom Prison concert was followed the next year by a show at San Quentin prison, located north of San Francisco along San Pablo Bay. The concert was filmed for a television documentary and the attendant album release, At San Quentin, sold even more copies than its predecessor (the full, uncensored version of the concert was released 30 years later). Shortly before that concert, Shel Silverstein gave Cash a poem, ‘A Boy Named Sue’. Carl Perkins put chords to it and, without any rehearsals, the humorous song was recorded, giving Cash his only Top 10 on the US pop charts and a number 4 success in the UK. When Cash performed his prison song ‘San Quentin’ (‘I hate every inch of you/May you rot and burn in hell/May your walls fall and may I live to tell’), he nearly caused an uprising. The famous image of Cash extending his middle finger to the camera stemmed from this San Quentin concert, taken by official photographer Jim Marshall.

Cash’s new-found popularity led to him hosting his own television series from 1969-71, but, despite notable guests from the rock world such as Bob Dylan, the Who and Neil Young, the show was hampered by feeble jokes and middle-of-the-road arrangements. Nevertheless, the show’s catchphrase, ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’, became so well known that both Elvis Presley and the Kinks’ Ray Davies sometimes opened with that remark. A far better representation of Cash on the screen can be found in the 1969 documentary Johnny Cash - The Man, His World, His Music. With little trouble, Cash could have been a major Hollywood star, particularly in westerns, and he acquitted himself well when the occasion arose. He made his debut in Five Minutes To Live in 1961 and his best role was opposite Kirk Douglas in the 1971 movie A Gunfight, which was financed by Apache money, although religious principles prevented a scene with a naked actress. He was featured alongside Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson in a light-hearted television remake of Stagecoach and starred in a television movie adaptation of his pool-hall song ‘The Baron’ Cash also gave a moving portrayal of a coalminer overcoming illiteracy in another television movie, The Pride Of Jesse Hallam. He recorded the theme for the US television series The Rebel - Johnny Yuma and, among several previously unissued tracks released on a 1996 Bear Family Records compilation, was his submission for a James Bond theme, ‘Thunderball’.

In the early 70s, Cash championed new singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, writing the liner notes for his first album, Kristofferson, and recording several of his songs. He made a documentary film and double album Gospel Road with Kristofferson, Larry Gatlin and the Statler Brothers, but, as he remarked, ‘My record company would rather I’d be in prison than in church.’ He justified himself commercially when ‘A Thing Called Love’, written by Jerry Reed, made with the Evangel Temple Choir, became one of his biggest-selling UK records, reaching number 4 in 1972. Cash often found strength and comfort in religion and went on to record many spiritual albums. One of his most stirring performances was ‘Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?’ with the Carter Family. During this period, the public perception of Johnny Cash as an outlaw figure began to assume semi-mythological status. Cash cut an imposing figure with his huge muscular frame, black hair, craggy face and deep bass voice, and unlike other country singers he shunned lavish colours. In his song ‘Man In Black’, he explained that he wears black because of the injustice in the world. In truth, he started wearing black when he first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry because he felt that rhinestone suits detracted from the music.

By opening his own recording studios, House Of Cash, in 1972, Cash became even more prolific. His family joined him on 1974’s quirky The Junkie And The Juicehead Minus Me and his son-in-law J.W. Routh wrote several songs and performed with him on 1977’s The Rambler. He always followed writers and the inclusion of Nick Lowe, former husband of Carlene Carter, and Rodney Crowell, husband of Rosanne Cash, into his family increased his awareness. His cover versions included the Rolling Stones’ ‘No Expectations’, John Prine’s ‘Unwed Fathers’, Guy Clark’s ‘The Last Gunfighter Ballad’ and a touching cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Highway Patrolman’. He showed his humour with ‘Gone Girl’, ‘One Piece At A Time’ and ‘Chicken In Black’, but the general consensus is that the passion went out of Cash’s recording career during the 70s.

Columbia Records ended their 28 year relationship with Cash in 1986, a move that greatly rankled the artist. He moved to Mercury Records the same year and found success immediately with the whimsical ‘The Night Hank Williams Came To Town’. He made an all-star album, Water From The Wells Of Home, with Emmylou Harris, the Everly Brothers, Paul McCartney and many others. His 60s composition ‘Tennessee Flat-Top Box’ became a US country number 1 for daughter Rosanne in 1988. In the same year, various UK modern folk artists recorded an album of his songs ‘Til Things Are Brighter, with proceeds going to an AIDS charity. Cash particularly enjoyed Sally Timms’ waltz-time treatment of ‘Cry! Cry! Cry!’. During his late-80s revival, Cash was hampered by pneumonia, a double heart bypass and a recurrence of drug problems. He returned to the stage, however, either touring with the Carter Family or as part of the Highwaymen with Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Nelson, and remained passionate about his beliefs: ‘A lot of people think of country singers as right-wing, redneck bigots, ’ he says, ‘but I don’t think I’m like that.’

In a genre now dominated by new country, Cash found it difficult to obtain record contracts at the start of the 90s, but this worked to his advantage in attracting a new generation of music lovers. He provided the vocals for ‘The Wanderer’ on U2’s 1993 release Zooropa, and the following year he was invited to make an album for Rick Rubin’s American label. Rubin, better known for his work with rap acts, helped Cash instigate a new direction to his career with the low-key American Recordings. Featuring just Cash’s craggy voice and simple guitar, it reaffirmed the artist’s talent for storytelling. Among the many excellent songs on the album were readings of Nick Lowe’s ‘The Beast In Me’ and Loudon Wainwright’s ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Cry’. An appearance at the UK’s Glastonbury Festival the same year also introduced him to a new audience, this time indie and new wave rockers. In the USA, Cash became a media star and was featured on the cover on many magazines (not just music ones). It was an astonishing rebirth of interest. 1996’s Unchained continued his renaissance, with effortless cover versions of Don Gibson’s ‘Sea Of Heartbreak’ and the Dean Martin classic ‘Memories Are Made Of This’.

Cash announced he was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease at a Flint, Michigan concert on 25 October 1997, and was hospitalized with double pneumonia soon afterwards. Later he claimed that he had Shy-Drager syndrome, although this was subsequently stated to be a wrong diagnosis. Cash was actually suffering from autonomic neuropathy, a group of symptoms affecting the central nervous system which made him particularly prone to contracting pneumonia. Nevertheless, he was able to return to the studio to record the third and fourth instalments in Rubin’s American Recordings series, Solitary Man (2000) and The Man Comes Around (2002). The latter featured a bleak reading of Nine Inch Nail’s ‘Hurt’ which was promoted by a stunning video in which the camera lingered unflinchingly on the singer’s weathered face. The untimely death of June Carter Cash in May 2003 was a great shock to the singer, who had often relied on his wife to help him through various afflictions. He was to ill to attend the MTV Video Music Awards, at which the video for ‘Hurt’ was up for six awards. He succumbed to complications from diabetes shortly afterwards. Cash’s contribution to music was recognised by the success of the movie Walk The Line in 2005. Joaquin Phoenix was well cast as the young Cash. The following July, Cash earned a posthumous American chart-topper with the fifth instalment in the American Recordings project.

During his lifetime, Cash was made a member of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, the Country Music Hall Of Fame, and the Songwriters’ Hall Of Fame. He was also the recipient of 11 Grammy Awards. Cash’s gigantic contribution to country music’s history is inestimable. As he stated, ‘They can get all the synthesizers they want, but nothing will ever take the place of the human heart.’

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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