“Go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.” – Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records.
J.R “Johnny” Cash was many things. A Man in Black, a man of God, an outlaw, a hopeless romantic, a rock star, a drug user and one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.
J.R was born in Arkansas in 1932 to a family of cotton-farmers and devout Christians. He began singing whilst working in the field at aged five. The musical influence in the Cash household was predominantly Gospel. Decades later, his album My Mother’s Hymn Book was credited to these early years.
Cash’s childhood was tense and tragic. The family’s business struggled enormously during the Depression, which caused a great deal of tension in the family. John also had a difficult relationship with his father, Ray Cash, which was exacerbated by the death of J.R’s elder brother Jack, whom he very much idolized and was his father’s pride and joy. Jack died after an accident involving a head saw. The guilt and grief that the young Cash felt from this incident is said to have heavily shaped his future and the dark nature of his adult life.
After enlisting in the Royal Air Force in 1950, J.R, now known as ‘John’, married his childhood sweetheart, Vivian Liberto, and began dabbling in music. After he was discharged, he sought work as a salesman in Memphis and formed a band with local musicians, The Tennessee Two.
After a year of temptation, the group plucked up the courage to play for Sam Phillips, the owner of the now infamous Sun Records, who’s other clients included Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and of course, Elvis Presley. Phillips initially blew them off by declaring that Gospel was no longer a money-making genre. There is some dispute as to whether Phillips recommended ‘sinning’ by way of influence, but either way, the group came back with a different sound and were promptly signed. Soon after, J.R changed his name to Johnny and what would become Rock N Roll history had begun.
By the end of the Fifties, Cash was a household name and was slowly descending into alcoholism and drug addiction. The Sixties was a successful but turbulent decade for Cash. He was addled with addiction, engulfed in a messy divorce, on the road constantly and getting himself arrested, not to mention accidentally starting a forest fire. His dependency on both prescription and recreational drugs began to take a toll on his health, his performances and his close relationships.
By 1967, Cash was divorced and had lost almost 60 lbs through drug abuse. Led by his close-friend and musician, June Carter, his family and friends staged an intervention to bring Cash back from the brink of self-destruction. A tumultuous and prolonged affair, but nevertheless successful. Cash frequently credited Carter for saving his life.
Cash married Carter in 1968, after an alleged 30+ unsuccessful proposals. They remained married until Carter’s death in 2003. Cash himself died four months later from complications with diabetes, said to be worsened by his grief.
Cash’s body of music has exceeded almost five decades. His most notable works being I Walk the Line (1964), Man in Black (1971) and his two infamous live prison albums, Live at Folsom and Live at San Quentin. His last recorded track before his death was his extremely heartfelt cover of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails.
Although frequently labelled a country singer, a tag he begrudgingly accepted but didn’t entirely agree with, Cash is one of very few musicians who’ve indulged a wide range of genres. Cash covered everything from Gospel to Rockabilly to Folk to Blues, putting his flag on them all with his gritty, baritone voice.
His honest, gutsy and, at times, controversial lyrics have influenced many artists over the years, including Bob Dylan, Ozzy Osborne, Leonard Cohen and Ray Charles. This year sees the tenth anniversary of his death, but Cash’s music and memory will be around for years to come.