Johnny Cash was born in the small town of Kingsland, in the hill country of southern Arkansas. Life had always been difficult there, but when the Great Depression destroyed the fragile agricultural economy of the region, Johnny's parents, Ray and Carrie Cash, could barely earn enough to feed their seven children.
In 1935, the New Deal administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged marginal farmers from the hill country to resettle in the more fertile soil of northeastern Arkansas. The Cash family took the government up on this offer and made the move. Working together, they cleared 20 acres of land to grow cotton. Johnny worked side by side with his parents on the farm.
In the evenings when the day's chores were done, the Cash family gathered on their front porch. Johnny's mother, Carrie, played guitar, and the whole family sang hymns and traditional tunes. Johnny loved his mother's playing and singing, and he was entranced by the country and gospel singers he heard on an uncle's battery-powered radio. By 12 he was writing poems, songs and stories.
In 1954, he was signed to the Sun Records label owned by Sam Phillips, who had also discovered rock 'n rollers Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Philips was impressed with the song "Hey Porter" Cash had written when he was returning home from the Air Force. When Phillips wanted a ballad for the b-side of "Hey Porter," Cash wrote "Cry, Cry, Cry" overnight. The single sold over 100,000 copies in the southern states alone. Johnny Cash and his sidemen, the Tennessee Two, began touring with Elvis Presley and the other Sun Records artists. They performed on the Louisiana Hayride radio program and Johnny Cash made his first television appearances on local programs in the south.
By 1958 Johnny Cash had published 50 songs, and pop artists far from the country music mainstream were recording Johnny Cash tunes. He had sold over six million records for Sun when he moved to the New York-based Columbia records label. Johnny himself moved to California, and brought his parents along.
By the end of the 1950s, the LP or long-playing record was emerging as the dominant form for recorded music. The 1959 album: Fabulous Johnny Cash, sold half a million copies, as did Hymns and Songs of Our Soil, and the single "Don't Take Your Guns to Town." Concert tours took Johnny to Europe, Asia and Australia. He began to appear as an actor in television westerns. Even as his concert fees escalated, he took time from his schedule to perform free of charge at prisons throughout the nation.
The 1960 single "Ride This Train" won a gold record, as did the 1963 album Ring of Fire, and the 1968 LP Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. In 1964, Cash, who was one-quarter Cherokee Indian, recorded the album Bitter Tears on Native American themes. That same year, he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, breaking down a perceived barrier between the genres of country and folk music. At Newport, he made the acquaintance of Bob Dylan. Dylan featured Cash on his own Nashville Skylinealbum and Cash recorded several of Dylan's songs.
In 1969, public television broadcast the documentary film Cash! and the networks became interested in a more regular TV presence. The Johnny Cash Show premiered on ABC television in the summer of 1967 and became part of ABC's regular schedule the following January. This prime time television variety show ran until 1970 and presented guest artists as varied as Ray Charles, Neil Young, Stevie Wonder and The Who.
Renewed sales of his records made Johnny Cash a millionaire. He used his earnings to support mental health associations, a home for autistic children, refuges for battered women, the American Cancer Society, YWCA, Youth For Christ, Campus Life, and humane societies around the country. At the same time, he played benefits for Native American causes and endowed a burn research center in memory of his former guitarist Luther Perkins, who had died in a fire.
In 1987, Johnny Cash received three multi-platinum records for previous sales of over two million copies each of Folsom Prison, San Quentin, and his collection of Greatest Hits. In 1994 his recording career revived with the release of American Recordings, the first of four Grammy award-winning collections of extremely diverse material, ranging from folk songs to his own compositions and songs by contemporary artists such as U2 and Nine Inch Nails.
Over the course of his career, he received 11 Grammy awards. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters' Hall of Fame. He received the Kennedy Center Honors, and the National Medal of the Arts.
His wife of 35 years, June Carter Cash, died from complications following heart surgery in May, 2003. Johnny Cash followed her in death four months later, succumbing to respiratory failure after a long struggle with diabetes. Even in death, Johnny Cash remains a powerful force in American culture. Only two years after his passing, a motion picture based on his life, Walk the Line, enjoyed worldwide critical and popular success. The film generated a revival of interest in his life and work, assuring that another generation would find inspiration in the timeless sound of the Man in Black.
American VI: Ain't No Grave, released on February 26, 2010 on what would have been Cash's 78th birthday is the last of the American Recordings series Cash was working on with producer Rick Rubin months before his death.