Born February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas, J.R. Cash was one of six children belonging to Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash. When John was three years old, his father took advantage of a new Roosevelt farm program and moved his young family to Dyess Colony in northeast Arkansas. There the Cash family farmed 20 acres of cotton and other seasonal crops, and young John worked alongside his parents and siblings in the fields.
Music was an integral part of everyday life in the Cash household. John soaked up a variety of musical influences ranging from his mother's folk songs and hymns to the work songs from the fields and nearby railroad yards. He absorbed these sounds like sponge absorbs water. In later years Cash would draw from his life in Arkansas for inspiration: "Pickin' Time," "Five Feet High and Rising," and "Look at Them Beans" are all reflections on Cash's early life.
Cash remained in Dyess Colony until his graduation from high school in 1950. As a young man he set off for Detroit in search of work. He ended up in Pontiac, Michigan, and took work in an automotive plant. His tenure in the North Country was short-lived and Cash soon enlisted in the Air Force. After basic training in Texas (where he met first wife Vivian Liberto), he was shipped to Landsberg, Germany. While in the service Cash organized his first band, the Landsberg Barbarians.
After his discharge in 1954 Cash returned stateside and married Liberto. He and his new bride soon settled in Memphis where Cash worked a variety of jobs -- including that of appliance salesman -- while trying to break into the music business.
In 1954, Cash auditioned as solo artist for Sam Phillip's Sun Records. He entertained hopes of recording gospel music for the label, but Phillips immediately nixed that idea. By the following spring, though, Cash was in the Sun Studios to record with his band The Tennessee Three.
The original group consisted of guitarist Luther Perkins, bass player Marshall Grant, and Red Kernodle on pedal steel. Kernodle bailed out of the session and Cash's first release for the label, "Hey Porter" had a sparse, but highly effective instrumental accompaniment. Though an impressive single, the song failed to chart.
Cash's follow-up release for Sun, however, fared substantially better. "Cry, Cry, Cry" managed to crack Billboard's Top Twenty, peaking at No. 14. A long succession of chart singles followed: "So Doggone Lonesome" and "Folsom Prison Blues" both broke into the trade publication's Top Ten. But Cash's fourth chart single proved to be his career song. "I Walk the Line," shot to Billboard's No. 1 position and remained on the record charts for an incredible 43 weeks, ultimately selling over two million copies.
By 1957 Cash had racked up an impressive string of hits and was working more than 200 dates a year. That same year he realized a longtime dream when he was invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. The following year he switched to Columbia Records in search of more artistic freedom. He still had aspirations of making gospel records and felt he had a better chance of accomplishing this goal at another label.
Throughout the remainder of the fifties and into the 1960s Cash continued to produce remarkable records and charted consistently. "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," "I Got Stripes," "Ring of Fire," "Understand Your Man," and "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" all hit the upper registers of the record charts. Appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, and other top-rated network programs followed. His early 1960s concept albums such as Bitter Tears and Ballads of the True West made him a favorite among the folk music crowd, culminating in an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival.
As Cash entered the early Seventies, his sales reached levels only experienced by Rock groups like the Beatles. Attendance records were being set at his performances, yet he was tired of the grind of television. With that, he left the broadcast world and began to again focus his efforts on his recordings. The record "Man in Black" saw John putting new efforts into the message of his music. Other recording highlights of the early part of this decade included "Oney" and "Any Old Wind that Blows".
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. However, it was continuing to get harder to get air play on the Pop/Country stations. As he later bemused, the airplay may have slowed but the tour bus never never did. Near the end of the decade, Cash broke with his long time company of Columbia records. Many devote Cash fans resented the company's release of this legend. Supporters like Dwight Yoakam were very outspoken regarding the insult to the man whose sales had practically paid for the building that the executives were sitting in. In later autobiography, Cash shared no hard feelings towards the decision. He noted that both had lost interest in each other and he was also feeling in need of moving on. Cash would continue to record under the Polygram label and the the Mercury label. Nether of these two companies were able to the capture the real magic of the music of JRC. That recording magic would not be unlocked until the next decade.
In 2003, John released an album containing two his most unique recorded songs. These songs were the title cut, "When The Man Comes Around" and a Rubin suggestion called "Hurt". A last minute video of the latter produce what many might called a masterpiece that all other music videos should measure themselves by. The video depicted the human frailty of life at it look at Cash in his later years. Many in the industry proclaimed it a work of art and it was nominated for many music awards, even later winning Video of the Year from CMT. Cash still showing all, young and old, how an true artist takes his final bows.
Unknown to all except Cash insiders, serious health problems were mounting for both John and June. Cash had his continuous battles with pneumonia. In the spring of 2003, his latest battles had weakened to the point of needing to use a wheel chair to get around. However, the source for strength that all John faced had begun to weaken as well. That strength had always been June Carter Cash. June had been diagnosed with a heart condition that would months later require surgery. It was a surgery that June would never return home from. June Carter died on May 23, 2003.
John grieved with the whole world at the passing of his beloved "Junebug." He allowed public to attend the funeral and celebrated the life of this truly remarkable woman. With his last kiss, he sat back in the wheel chair at the funeral and was lead back into the world without June. Many feared it would only be a matter of time until we lost John as well.
Three days after the funeral of June Carter, John was back in the studio doing what he was meant to do. He felt that June would have wanted him to continue his work and it was how he best knew to deal with the devastating loss he felt. On July 5, 2003, Johnny Cash gave a moving performance at the Carter Fold. It was to be his last public performance. Cash told the many faithful gatherer on the Appalachian hilltop that the "spirit of June Carter" had visited him. He noted that she continued to give him that strength he needed. June had always been that guiding inspiration for him in both life, and now in death.
The "Hurt" video was nominated for several MTV Video awards. John had been hoping to attend the ceremonies in New York, but had been hospitalized in August with stomach aliments. He watched his video win an MTV award from his hospital bed. Cash music was still reaching folks almost fifty years after it had began. Cash was released and sent home to recover and finalize the recordings on a coming fifth American Recordings album. That work would never be completed.
On September 12, 2003, the world awoke to the sad news that John R. Cash had passed away due to complications brought on by his battles with diabetes. The world stood stunned. Young, old, rich, poor reflected on the passing of the Man In Black. A few days later, he was laid to rest beside his beloved June.
Have we reached the final chapter of this book? The answer is a resounding "No!" As John's sister reflected at the funeral of her brother, "Johnny Cash is!" . One thing is for sure, his music and influence and will live on for years to come. But the presence of the Man In Black will be missed on the many of the stages around the world. His journey reached out and touched the hearts , souls, and dreams of many. His journey was our journey. His dreams were our dreams.
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