Sources returnpage

Cash, Johnny

Category: Musician or composer

 

John R. Cash (February 26, 1932 – September 12, 2003) was an American singer-songwriter, guitarist, actor, and author. He is widely considered one of the most influential popular musicians of the 20th century and is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 90 million records worldwide.

Although primarily remembered as a country music icon, his genre-spanning songs and sound embraced rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, folk, and gospel. This crossover appeal won Cash the rare honour of multiple inductions in the Country Music, Rock and Roll, and Gospel Music Halls of Fame.

The inspirational music he composed would be enough to place him on the site, especially as he had a faith in the spiritual world and God that lasted all his life, but he battled with drugs for a number of years and had some rather sobering experiences as a consequence.  He also had a near death experience.

Life and Career

Cash – The autobiography of Johnny Cash

My name is John R. Cash. I was born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. I'm one of seven children: Roy, the eldest, then Louise, Jack, myself, Reba, Joanne, and Tommy. We all grew up chopping cotton. I married Vivian Liberto of San Antonio, Texas, when I was twenty-two and went on to have four daughters with her: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. Vivian and I parted, and in 1968 I married June Carter, who is still my wife. We have one child together, John Carter, my only son.   June brought two daughters, Carlene and Rosie, to our marriage. Now we have a combined total of twelve grandchildren and so many sons-in- law, past and present, that June makes a joke of it in her stage act.

Cash with his first wife

My work life has been simple: cotton as a youth and music as an adult. In between I was an automobile factory worker in Michigan, a radio intercept operator for the United States Air Force in Germany, and a door-to-door appliance salesman for the Home Equipment Company of Memphis, Tennessee. I was a great radio operator and a terrible salesman. I hated the assembly line.

My first records were on the Sun label, run by Mr Sam Phillips in Memphis and featuring Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and others as well as myself. My first single was 'Cry, Cry, Cry' in 1955, my first big hit 'I Walk the Line' in 1956.  I left Sun Records for Columbia in 1958, and shortly after that I left Memphis for California.

My affair with pills had already begun. It quickly became all consuming, eating me up for the next decade or so. Amazingly, it didn't completely ruin my career. During those years I made music I'm still proud of - particularly Ride This Train, Bitter Tears, and my other concept albums- and I had commercial success: 'Ring of Fire' was a big hit for me in 1963. By that time I'd destroyed my family and was working hard on doing the same to myself.

with June

 I survived, though. I moved to Nashville, kicked my habit, and Married June.

My career accelerated. The Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison album was a huge success, and in 1969 I began hosting The Johnny Cash Show on the ABC TV network.

After 'Flesh and Blood' in 1970, I didn't have a chart-topping single until One Piece at a Time' in 1976, long after The Johnny Cash Show was history. Between the early '70s and the early '90s I didn't sell huge numbers of records, but again I have to say that I made some music I'm still proud of, and those years weren't dull.

 I wrote my first autobiography, Man in Black, and my first novel, Man in White. I teamed up with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson in the Highwaymen. I left Columbia, owned by CBS Records, and went to Mercury/Polygram. I got elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. I got addicted to pain pills, got treated at the Betty Ford Clinic, recovered, got addicted again, and recovered again.

I just about died, got saved by heart bypass surgery, and just about died again. I worked hundreds and hundreds of shows. I kept my operation together, more or less, until the wheel of fortune rolled around to me again. That happened in 1994, when I formed an alliance with Rick Rubin, producer of radically non-Nashvillian acts like the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers, and made my American Recordings album. According to the media at the time, that caused an overnight change in my status from 'Nashville has-been' to 'hip icon.'

Whatever they called me, I was grateful.

 It was my second major comeback; the minor ones have been too many to count. I'm still on the circuit today, still recording, still writing songs, still showing up to play everywhere from Midwestern auditoriums to Manhattan trend spots to the Royal Albert Hall. I’m in reasonable shape physically and financially. I’m still a  Christian, as I have been all my life.


Cash is joined by his wife, June Carter, and son, John, 6, at the dedication of a star honoring him in the Hollywood Walk of Fame

The Man in Black

 

Man gained a reputation for always wearing black on stage.  As the observation for the song Man in Black shows, Cash wore black for the ‘poor and beaten down, livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town’ – the disadvantaged and the ‘sick and lonely old'.

Johnny Cash’s autobiography is a wonderful historical record of what life was like for poor settlers and migrants at the turn of the century.  And it shows he was once himself poor and disadvantaged.  Aside from its interest as the autobiography of a musical legend, it would stand up as an interesting book in its own right.  The descriptions of cotton picking by hand, of life during the Depression and the grinding poverty of those days fully justify Cash’s decision to wear black:

Cash – The autobiography of Johnny Cash

My line comes down from Queen Ada, the sister of Malcolm IV, descended from King Duff, the first king of Scotland. Ada's holdings encompassed all the land east of the Miglo River in the Valley of the Bran, in what is now the county of Fife. Malcolm's castle is long gone, but you can still see some of its stones in the walls of the church tower in the little village of Strathmiglo.

 The motto on my people's coat of arms was 'Better Times Will Come.' Their name was Caesche; with emigration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it came to be spelled the way it was pronounced, C-A-S-H. The first American Cash was William, a mariner who captained his own ship, the Good Intent, sailing out of Glasgow across the Atlantic with cargoes of pilgrims for the New World until he himself settled in Essex County, Massachusetts, in 1667.

His descendants migrated to Westmoreland County, Virginia, in the very early 1700s, before George Washington was born there, and then moved on to Bedford and Amherst counties. My direct line went farther south, to Henry and Elbert counties in Georgia, where my great-grandfather, Reuben Cash, was born. He fought for the Confederacy and survived the Civil War. His home didn't. Sherman's troops stripped and burned his Georgia plantation, so he moved his family farther west, home-steading across the Mississippi in Arkansas when his son, my grandfather, William Henry Cash, was six.

 

William Henry Cash grew up in Toledo, Arkansas, a community that began disappearing as soon as the railroad came through nearby Rison. He became a farmer and a minister, what they called a circuit rider, a traveling preacher serving four widely scattered congregations. He rode a horse and he carried a gun, and never once did he take a penny for his preaching - though as my daddy told it, the yard and the barn and the stables were full of animals people had given him, and there was always enough to feed his twelve children. Parkinson's disease sent him from this world at the age of fifty-two, in 1912.

Daddy, the youngest son and the only child still at home, was just fifteen at the time, but he supported my grandmother until her death three years later, after which he enlisted in the army. His first posting, in 1916, was to General John J. Pershing's command in Deming, New Mexico, and he was under Pershing when Pancho Villa came through and burned Columbus. I remember him telling me that for three nights he lay with his head in Mexico and his feet in Texas, waiting for Villa. Villa never came; Pershing had to go looking for him. Daddy's name was Ray Cash. He married my mother, Carrie Rivers, on August 18, 1920.

I was their fourth child. Daddy had a lot, but he didn't have money. The Depression had ruined cotton farming - already a hard, marginal living for people like him at the bottom of the system - and he had to take whatever work could be had. Sometimes none could, so he spent his days roaming with his .22 rifle after squirrels, rabbits, possum, whatever might feed his family. Given a shot, he didn't miss. He couldn't afford to - in those days a box of shells cost twenty cents. He worked at the sawmill; he cleared land; he laid track for the railroad; and when no work was available locally, he rode the freights to wherever advertisement, rumour, or chance offered payment in cash. Our house was right on the railroad tracks, out in the woods, and one of my earliest memories is of seeing him jump out of a moving boxcar and roll down into the ditch in front of our door. Lots of men did that. The trains slowed near our house, so it was a popular spot for jumping to avoid the railroad detectives at the station in Kingsland.


Addiction

Cash was largely addicted to amphetamines, although he later became addicted to painkillers – the opioids:

Cash – The autobiography of Johnny Cash

I took my first amphetamine, a little white Benzedrine tablet scored with a cross, in 1957, when I was on tour with Faron Young and Ferlin Husky, and I loved it. It increased my energy, it sharpened my wit, it banished my shyness, it improved my timing; it turned me on like electricity flowing into a light bulb. I described the new world it opened to me in Man in Black:

With all the traveling I had to do, and upon reaching a city tired and weary, those pills could pep me up and make me really feel like doing a show ... Those white pills were just one of a variety of a dozen or more shapes and sizes ... They called them amphetamines, Dexedrine, Benzedrine, and Dexamyl. They had a whole bunch of nice little names for them to dress them up, and they came in all colours. If you didn't like green, you could get orange. If you didn't like orange, you could get red. And if you really wanted to act like you were going to get weird, you could get black.

Those black ones would take you all the way to California and back in a'53 Cadillac with no sleep. And so it went.

The journey into addiction has been described so often by so many people in recent years that I don't believe a blow-by-blow account of my particular path would serve any useful purpose. Perhaps in the late '50s or early '60s, it could have. Now it's just one tale among many, the details different but the pattern, the steps, the progression the same as any other addict's. So while I do have to tell you about it, I'll try to avoid being tedious.

Hit just the lowlights, so to speak.

The first and perhaps the worst thing about it was that every pill I took was an attempt to regain the wonderful, natural feeling of euphoria I experienced the first time, and therefore not a single one of them, not even one among the many thousands that slowly tore me away from my family and my God and myself ever worked. It was never as great as the first time, no matter how hard I tried to make it so.


The absolute faith of Johnny Cash

Cash was a Christian, but also has an extremely poetic sense of the beauty around him, derived from his near death experience and his inherent spirituality after a hard life grounded throughout in his faith.  Cash lived breathed, sung and composed within a framework of a complete belief in the Creator, a reverent respect for God and eternal gratitude for the things that matter in life:

Cash – The autobiography of Johnny Cash

In Jamaica ……, you can depend on the Ackee trees to put out their fruit each year. During the rainy season you can count on run off from the mountains rushing over the waterfall near my house, just as you know it will slow to a trickle come January and February. Any night of the year you can walk out any door and look up, and there above you will be all the brilliance and beauty of the stars; I've looked through a telescope from here and seen as many as five of the moons of Jupiter. From here I can get to my car and go down to one of the local markets and buy tomatoes with their stems still on, potatoes still flecked with dirt from the fields. I can pick bananas from the trees in my own yard when they're perfectly ripe, just exactly right, and no banana in the world ever tasted as good. I can go barefoot, even if my sixty-five-year-old soles aren't nearly as tough as that Arkansas country boy's. I can feel the rhythms of the earth, the growing and the blooming and the fading and the dying, in my bones. My bones. When we clasp hands around the dinner table every night and I ask God to grant us rest and restoration, that's the kind of restoration I'm talking about: to keep us as one with the Creator. To rest in nature's arms.


Death

June Carter Cash died on May 15, 2003, at the age of 73. June had told Cash to keep working, so he continued to record, completing 60 more songs in the last four months of his life, and even performed a couple of surprise shows at the Carter Family Fold outside Bristol, Virginia. At the July 5, 2003, concert (his last public performance), before singing "Ring of Fire", Cash read a statement about his late wife that he had written shortly before taking the stage:

The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her. We connect somewhere between here and Heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess, from Heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has.

Cash continued to record until shortly before his death. His final recordings were made on August 21, 2003.

While hospitalized at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Cash died of complications from diabetes at approximately 2:00 a.m. CT on September 12, 2003, aged 71—less than four months after his wife. ‘It was suggested that Johnny's health worsened due to a broken heart over June's death’. He was buried next to his wife in Hendersonville Memory Gardens near his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

Cash – The autobiography of Johnny Cash

 

I'm thankful for a pair of shoes that really feel good on my feet; I like my shoes. I'm thankful for the birds; I feel like they're singing just for me when I get up in the morning, saying 'Good morning, John. You made it, John.' And that first ray of sun-shine; I'm thankful for living through the night to see it.

I'm thankful I don't have a terminal disease, that I'm in fairly good health, that I can get up in the morning and walk down and have breakfast, then walk along the jungle trails and smell the flowers - the jasmine, the love vines, the orchids.

I'm thankful that I have a good wife beside me, that I can trust her and depend on her in a lot of ways. I'm thankful she's a soul mate, that we can talk to each other sometimes without even speaking and have an understanding on a lot of things. I'm thankful she loves my children. I'm thankful I don't have rambling on my mind, that I'm not thinking about other women, so long as I keep my heart and mind together.

I'm thankful I don't have a passion for cars, like so many entertainers who blow all their money that way - my car is almost nine years old and I have no intention of trading it in.

I'm thankful that money is not my god, that for me it's a means to an end. I'm thankful for my family - thankful for daughters and grandchildren and a son who love me, and thankful that their love is unconditional. I have a lot of good friends, and I'm thankful for them, too.

I'm thankful for my gift - my mother always called my voice 'the gift'- and that even though I haven't written a song in quite a while, I've got a bunch of them raising cane in my brain, wanting to be laid down on paper.

I'm thankful that God has inspired me to want to write, and that He might possibly use me to influence somebody for the good, if I can see the opportunities through the smokescreen of my own ego. I'm thankful I'm not the ugliest man in the world, that I'm not all that ashamed to go on stage and face a crowd. I'm no picture, but if I were as ugly as some I've seen on stage, I wouldn't go. I'm not talking about physical appearances especially, but ugly souls.

Finally, I'm thankful, very thankful, that at this moment I have absolutely no craving for any kind of drug. I've been up almost three hours today, and this is the first time I've thought about it, and even then it's in the spirit of gratitude. So my disease isn't active. Last night I saw a bottle of wine passed around the table, and I never once thought about taking even a sip of it. (So why am I thinking about it now? Watch it, Cash! Gotta never be complacent. Never take anything for granted. Don't forget, great prices have been paid and will be paid again if you get too smug, too egotistical and self-assured.) I’m thankful for the sea breeze that feels so good right now, and the scent of jasmine when the sun starts going down. I’m a happy man.

 

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.