BORN: Feb. 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Ark.
DIED: September 12, 2003 in Nashville
FAMILY: Wife, June Carter Cash;
Children, Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, Tara and John Carter
J.R. Cash was the fourth of seven children born to a sharecropping family in Kingsland, Arkansas, and the initials J.R. were originally intended as a placeholder until his parents could decide on a name after his birth. But J.R. remained.
When he was 5 years old, young J.R. started working in the cotton fields with his family as they struggled to survive the Great Depression. His childhood years, filled with hardship and hard labor, inspired many songs that later became hits. Music was a powerful influence in the Cash home, offering solace during their struggles. His mother loved hymns and, in fact, the first recording Cash made as a young boy was a collection of his mother’s favorite hymns. His mother, along with a family friend, taught him to play guitar when he was 12. She could see his natural gift for music and did whatever she could to nurture it.
In 1950, when he joined the Air Force, he was not allowed to use initials in place of a full name, so he enlisted using the name John R. Cash. It was not until he signed his first record deal with Sun Records in 1955 that he became known as “Johnny Cash.”
During Cash’s four years in the Air Force he was stationed in Landsberg, West Germany, where he worked as a radio intercept officer. During those years in Germany he honed his guitar skills, took a stab at songwriting and wrote one of his most famous hits, “Folsom Prison Blues.” After being honorably discharged in 1954, Cash settled in Memphis with his young bride, Vivian. He served as an appliance salesman by day and moonlighted as a gospel musician. He teamed up with two other mechanics, Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins, and together they became Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. They added a drummer in 1960 and became the Tennessee Three.
As the group worked on their sound and began recording with Sun Records, they were instructed by their label to steer away from the gospel songs they preferred and to work on new material for a broader audience. After doing so, Johnny’s new songs quickly began rising up the Billboard charts. Then, in 1956, Cash wrote and released “I Walk the Line” which catapulted the group into stardom. Johnny quickly joined the ranks of elite artists such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
Fame, the pressure of the spotlight, and the grueling demands of touring took their toll on Cash and everyone who loved him. His choices earned for him a troubled “bad boy” image and eventually led him to rock-bottom, destroyed his marriage and threatened to end his career.
His friendship and eventual marriage to June Carter became a turning point that caused him to reconsider the direction his life was headed. During a time when the ears of the world were tuned to Johnny Cash, he began the long, humbling road to recovery. And he wasn’t afraid to sing about the faith that sustained him.
He had gained the attention of the world as “the man in black,” yet he was irresistibly drawn to the Light. Cash declared that he was “the biggest sinner of them all” and his heart for the lost and disenfranchised, with whom he closely identified, gave Johnny Cash opportunities to sing hope into people in places where gospel singers may not have been welcomed. That “broader audience” to whom he had been encouraged to sing was now hearing songs about his Savior.
Johnny Cash became one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, with more than 70 recordings to his name and an impressive list of successes. He was an iconic musician, singer and songwriter who became an actor, a television personality and author. But best of all, he was a sinner saved by the amazing grace he so loved to sing about.
Cash died of complications from diabetes at age 71, less than four months after June Carter Cash went Home.
1955 Signed by Sun Records
1956 Wrote and released “I Walk the Line” which catapulted him into stardom
1969 Named Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year
1980 Became the youngest inductee in the Country Music Hall of Fame at age 48
1992 Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
1996 Kennedy Center Honoree
AWARDS AND INDUCTIONS:
17 Grammy Awards
9 CMA Awards
National Medal of Arts (2001)
Hollywood Walk of Fame Star (1960)
Songwriters Hall of Fame (1977)
Country Music Hall of Fame (1980)
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1992)
Rockabilly Hall of Fame
Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2011)