Who is Johnny Cash?

Kathy Hawkins

Johnny Cash is a legendary American country musician, often called "the Man in Black." Born in 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, to an impoverished farming family, Johnny Cash (known as J.R. Cash) sold more than 50 million albums over a career that spanned nearly 50 years, until his death in 2003. He won many Grammy awards during his lifetime, and is widely recognized as one of the most influential musicians in American history.

San Quentin State Prison, where Johnny Cash performed in 1969.
San Quentin State Prison, where Johnny Cash performed in 1969.

Johnny Cash trained as a radio operator with the U.S. Air Force; while stationed at an air base in Germany, he formed his first band, the Landsberg Barbarians. After his training was complete, Cash married his first wife, Vivian Liberto, and moved with her to Memphis Tennessee. There, he worked as an appliance salesman while secretly harboring ambitions of becoming a famous musician.

Johnny Cash often played for prisoners -- including a group at Folsom Prison.
Johnny Cash often played for prisoners -- including a group at Folsom Prison.

In 1955, his wish came true. Johnny Cash and his bandmates recorded two songs, "Hey Porter" and "Cry Cry Cry" for Sam Phillips' famous Sun Studios record label, which became popular on country radio stations. His next album, Folsom Prison Blues, was Cash's breakout success; it hit the Country Music Top 5 list, and one single, "I Walk the Line," was number one on the country charts, and gained popularity even among mainstream music fans.

In 1957, Johnny Cash left Sun Records to sign with Columbia, where he achieved even greater commercial success. His personal life during this time, though, was quite turbulent. His wife Vivian gave birth to four children, including now-famous country star Roseanne Cash; however, Cash was frequently on tour and rarely saw his family. Johnny and Vivian divorced in 1966, and two years later, Johnny married June Carter, a another country music star.

Johnny Cash faced problems with drug addiction throughout the 1960s and early 1970s; he drank heavily and became hooked on amphetamines and barbiturates. In 1965, he was arrested in Texas for drug possession, and received a suspended sentence.

Johnny Cash was known for playing shows in prisons. Several of these shows were recorded, and released as the famous live albums Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash at San Quentin. Cash also starred in a talk show on ABC, The Johnny Cash Show, which hosted Bob Dylan and Neil Young, among other famous artists.

Johnny Cash experienced a resurgence of popularity late in his career for covers of popular songs. After his death in 2003, which was due to complications from diabetes, his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt" gained major radio airplay, serving as his epitaph.

In 2006, Walk the Line, a biopic about Johnny Cash's life and relationship with June Carter, was released. Cash was portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, who performed his own vocals, and June Carter was played by Reese Witherspoon, who won the Best Actress Academy Award for her role in the film.

Songs by Johnny Cash are very popular on country music radio stations.
Songs by Johnny Cash are very popular on country music radio stations.

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Discussion Comments


Johnny's and June's story is one of the great American love stories too, Scrbblchick. It's amazing how he waited for June, and how when they got together, the music was better than ever.

Both participated in the "Will the Circle be Unbroken" albums, Volumes II and III put together by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Johnny's tune on Circle III, "Tears in the Holston River," is heartbreaking. I love his music and hearing his passion and love for his craft in it.

I think the main thing the movie "Walk the Line" did was to show how rocky the road was for both Johnny and June to get together. They weren't a fairytale couple, by any means. Both had their problems.


When you talk about country music, you can't leave out Johnny Cash. To say he was an icon is just not enough. His music helped shape modern American music in general, not just country. Everybody has heard "Walk the Line" or "A Boy Named Sue." It's just part of the fabric of our culture.

I don't ever remember not hearing Johnny Cash songs. I remember seeing him on the awards shows and in concert on PBS. His music is so important to any study of American music. It's amazing that one artist should have contributed so much to popular music, but he did.

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