Johnny Cash Biography: Life and Career of the Country Singer-Songwriter
Johnny Cash Biography: Life and Career of the Country Singer-Songwriter

Johnny Cash Biography: Life and Career of the Country Singer-Songwriter

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
Born February 26th, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, Johnny Cash caught the attention of a label after serving in U.S. Air Force. He soon found success in country music, though he also experimented with gospel and rockabilly. Cash even branched out into acting, and appeared on TV and in films. And despite substance abuse issues, he found love with June Carter. He continued to act and make music throughout his old age and even collaborated with contemporary artists, helping to raise his popularity before his death. In this video, we take a look at the life and career of Johnny Cash.

Growing Up

John R. Cash was born February 26th, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. He grew up amid the difficulties of the Great Depression and worked on the family farm with his siblings. His early musical exposure came from the radio and his mother, who taught him to play guitar.

U.S. Air Force and First Band

After high school, Cash served in the United States Air Force where he formed his first band. Following his discharge in 1954, he married his first wife. They moved to Memphis, Tennessee where Cash worked on his music.

Sun Records

He did not impress Sun Records with his early gospel songs. However, a few months later, he caught the label’s attention with the rockabilly sound of his band Tennessee Two, which was later called Tennessee Three.

Country Debut

This led to his 1957 debut Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar. It featured the top five country track “Folsom Prison Blues” and his first country number one: “I Walk the Line.” Around this time, Cash participated in a jam session with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis: these recordings were later released as the Million Dollar Quartet.

Gospel and Secular Music

Cash began to seek more creative control with his music. With Columbia Records, he released his first gospel LP in 1959. He also had chart success with secular recordings: in fact, “Ring of Fire” was his biggest hit to that point.

Acting and Musical Success

The 1960s were busy for Cash: he toured with traditional folk music group the Carter Family and appeared on television and in movies. He also released a few concept albums and a Grammy-winning duet with June Carter. In addition, Cash found success with two live records taken from his performances for prison inmates.

Problems with Drugs and Alcohol

Despite these professional successes, Cash’s personal life was being destroyed by drug and alcohol addictions and trouble with the law. With guidance from the Carter Family, Cash cleaned himself up following a spiritual epiphany, and married June Carter in 1968. Unfortunately, he battled these addictions again on several occasions during his lifetime.

Television and the Man in Black

In 1969, “The Johnny Cash Show” made its television debut. By the next decade, Cash began sporting more and more all-black outfits. He explained the political motivations for this in the protest song “Man in Black.”

More Music and More Films

In the early 1970s, Cash continued producing hits. He appeared in the movie “A Gunfight” and performed for U.S. President Richard Nixon. He also became involved with the religious film “The Gospel Road” and its accompanying soundtrack. But his popularity began to wane by the mid-70s and he only had a few sporadic successes.


Then, in the early ‘80s, he achieved moderate success with Perkins and Lewis on The Survivors Live album. He formed country super-group The Highwaymen with Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and they dropped their first album in 1985. The next year, Cash, Lewis, Perkins and Roy Orbison released the Grammy-winning record Class of ’55.

Contemporary Success

Following a brief period with Mercury Nashville Records, Cash enjoyed success again in the 1990s. He broadened his audience by collaborating with contemporary artists, had a top five album with The Highwaymen’s sophomore effort and was offered a deal with American Recordings.

American Recordings

Following the release of the critically acclaimed album American Recordings, Cash won another Grammy for the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers-backed effort Unchained.

Illness and Music

Though Cash’s health was deteriorating, he continued to record. In 2000, he reflected upon his illness on the dark disc American III: Solitary Man. Two years later, Cash continued his introspection on American IV: The Man Comes Around, and this album featured his popular and poignant cover of the Nine Inch Nails track “Hurt.”

Death and Posthumous Releases

On September 12th, 2003, Cash died from diabetes complications. Posthumous releases included the Oscar-nominated biopic “Walk the Line,” the top five compilation The Legend of Johnny Cash, the number one album American V: A Hundred Highways and the top three disc American VI: Ain’t No Grave.

Musical Legacy

Johnny Cash influenced many with his humility, rebellious image and genuine song-writing. Though he experimented with rockabilly and gospel, he will always be remembered for being a country music legend.