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Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash at a record taping in December, 1972.

Johnny Cash, musician, actor, and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, to Ray and Carrie River Cash on February 26, 1932. After graduating from high school in Dyess, Arkansas, in 1950, Cash bounced from job to job from Michigan to Arkansas before joining the Air Force and was stationed in Germany from 1950 to 1954. The year 1954 was the first turning point in his career: he moved to Memphis and lived in Tennessee until his death in 2003. He also married Vivian Liberto Cash that year; their daughter, Rosanne Cash, became one of the most important female country music artists of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In Memphis Cash found his niche in popular music, in time developing into one of the great American singers of the twentieth century. His professional career dates to 1954 when he established Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, with Marshall Granton on bass and Luther Perkins on guitar. In 1955 Sam Phillips signed Cash for his Sun Records label, and by 1956 Cash had his first national hit—and a signature song— in “I Walk The Line.”

Like so many aspiring country music artists, Cash eagerly sought appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, but in 1958, with his recordings selling in the millions, Cash left the Opry for his own grueling schedule of concerts and television appearances. On the road Cash developed a musical style that blended blues, rock, country, and gospel with a persona that was part outlaw, part common man, and part fundamentalist minister. His hard work paid off in one sense—Cash became a major star outside of the finely honed Nashville Sound of the 1960s—but the demands of the road almost killed him, as he became increasingly addicted to various drugs.

The years 1967–68 were a second turning point for Cash's musical journey. He collaborated with Bob Dylan in the latter's Nashville Skyline album and released a landmark live album, At Folsom Prison, which captured the musicianship and excitement of his concert performances. More importantly, he married June Carter, a singer with the Carter Family that toured with Cash; he kicked the worst of his substance abuse; and he renewed his Christian faith. From 1968 to 1971, when ABC ended his network television show taped at the Ryman Auditorium, Cash was the most recognized country music performer in the nation.

In the second half of his career, Cash accepted acting roles in television, wrote his autobiography Man in Black (1975), and continued to produce important recordings, from collaborative projects such as Highwayman (1985) and Class of ’55 (1986) to the somber, emotional tones of his American Recordings projects, two of which were released posthumously. This latter tone was epitomized in his 2003 cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”; its accompanying video, which blended shots from throughout Cash’s career with religious iconography and shots of the derelict House of Cash museum, was and continues to be hailed as one of the greatest music videos of all time. He gained a new generation of fans and became a living legend among many young rockers and country music singers. Of all of the famed artists associated with Sun Records in the mid-1950s, Cash enjoyed the longest and most musically diverse career, earning induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and also received Kennedy Center Honors. Cash won or shared eighteen Grammy Awards, including the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, and won nine Country Music Association awards. He died on September 12, 2003, in Nashville of complications from diabetes—less than four months after his wife passed away. Their home, the House of Cash, burned in 2007.

Cash and his music posthumously came into vogue following the 2005 release of the biopic Walk the Line, which starred Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny and Reese Witherspoon as June. Three albums of his music have been released posthumously, the most recent of which, Out Among the Stars, appeared in 2014.

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » March 21, 2017