John R. Cash was born February 26, 1932 and died September 12, 2003.
Cash has been described as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.
Although primarily remembered as a country music artist, his songs and sound spanned many other genres including rockabilly, rock and roll the blues, folk, and gospel.
His distinctive, deep, bass-baritone voice was as rebelliousness, as it was somber. Although he saw himself as a devout follower of the Christian faith Cash declared that he was “the biggest sinner of them all”, and viewed himself overall as a complicated and contradictory man.
Johnny Cash was born J. R. Cash in Kingsland, Arkansas to Ray and Carrie Cash, and was raised in Dyess, Arkansas. He was given the name “J.R.” because his parents could not agree on a name, only on initials. When he enlisted in the United States Air Force, the military would not accept initials as his name, so he adopted John R. Cash as his legal name.
Cash was one of seven children: Jack, Joanne, Louise, Reba, Roy, and Tommy. His younger brother, Tommy Cash, also became a successful country artist. By the age of five, J.R. was working in cotton fields, singing along with his family as they worked. His family’s economic and personal struggles during the Great Depression inspired many of his songs, especially those about other people facing similar difficulties.
Cash was very close to his older brother, Jack, who died after being pulled into a table saw in the mill where he worked. He suffered for over a week before he died. Cash often spoke of the guilt he felt over this incident. According to Cash: The Autobiography, his father was away that morning, but he and his mother, and Jack himself, all had premonitions or a sense of foreboding about that day, causing his mother to urge Jack to skip work and go fishing with his brother. Jack insisted on working, as the family needed the money. On his deathbed, Jack said he had visions of heaven and angels. Decades later, Cash spoke of looking forward to meeting his brother in heaven. He wrote that he had seen his brother many times in his dreams, and that Jack always looked two years older than whatever age Cash himself was at that moment.
Cash’s early memories were dominated by gospel music and radio. Taught by his mother and a childhood friend, Cash began playing guitar and writing songs as a young boy. In high school he sang on a local radio station; decades later he released an album of traditional gospel songs, called My Mother’s Hymn Book. He was also significantly influenced by traditional Irish music that he heard performed weekly by Dennis Day on the Jack Benny radio program.
By the early 1970s, The Man in Black image was crystallised. He regularly performed dressed all in black, wearing a long black knee-length coat. This outfit stood in stark contrast to costumes worn by most of the major country acts. With a view to clarity in 1971, Cash wrote the song “Man in Black”, to explain his dress code: “We’re doing mighty fine I do suppose / In our streak of lightning cars and fancy clothes / But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back / Up front there ought to be a man in black.” He wore black on behalf of the poor and hungry, on behalf of “the prisoner who has long paid for his crime”, and on behalf of those who have been betrayed by age or drugs. “And,” Cash added, “with the Vietnam War as painful in my mind as it was in most other Americans’, I wore it ‘in mournin’ for the lives that could have been.’ … Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don’t see much reason to change my position … The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we’re not making many moves to make things right. There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.
In total, he wrote over 1,000 songs and released dozens of albums. A box set titled Unearthed was issued posthumously. It included four CDs of unreleased material recorded with Rubin as well as a Best of Cash on American retrospective CD.
In recognition of his lifelong support of SOS Children’s Villages, his family invited friends and fans to donate to that charity in his memory. He had a personal link with the SOS village in Diessen, at the Ammersee Lake in Southern Germany, near where he was stationed as a GI, and also with the SOS village in Barrett Town, by Montego Bay, near his holiday home in Jamaica. The Johnny Cash Memorial Fund was founded.
In 1999, Cash received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Cash #31 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
In a tribute to Cash after his death, country music singer Gary Allan included the song “Nickajack Cave (Johnny Cash’s Redemption)” on his 2005 album entitled Tough All Over. The song chronicles Cash hitting rock bottom and subsequently resurrecting his life and career.