Inspired by the country songs he heard on the radio, gospel music, his mother’s folk songs and the work songs of the cotton fields, Johnny Cash began writing songs as a boy. Shortly after leaving school, he enrolled in the U.S. Air Force. He was sent to Germany, assigned as a code intercept officer for Soviet transmissions and it was here he formed his first band. He was honourably discharged in 1954, and moved to Memphis with his new wife, where he trained to be a radio announcer.
The following year he auditioned for Sun Records, singing mostly gospel songs. He was told gospel would not sell and to come back with something more commercial. Cash returned with Hey Porter, which became the b-side to his first single Cry Cry Cry. His third single I Walk The Line was a huge hit and remains one his signature tunes.
“He created his own subgenre, falling halfway between the blunt emotional honesty of folk, the rebelliousness of rock & roll, and the world-weariness of country.” Allmusic
In his early career, Johnny developed an image as an outlaw. He drank heavily and was addicted to a lot of drugs. Although he never served a prison sentence, he was arrested several times for small offences. His drug addictions and destructive behavior led to divorce from his first wife. Despite this turbulent private life, he still wrote great songs: Ring Of Fire was another big hit.
In 1968, while under the heavy influence of drugs, he descended deeper and deeper into the Nickajack Cave, trying to lose himself and die. He passed out from exhaustion, but felt God’s presence in his heart, and struggled out of the cave by following a faint light and slight breeze. It was his rebirth; a spiritual epiphany. He quit drugs and rediscovered Christianity. June, Maybelle and Ezra Carter, who he had been touring with throughout the sixties, moved into his mansion to help him overcome his addiction. June and Johnny fell in love and the couple married that year and would go on to have a long and happy marriage.
While other country artists often wore flamboyant cowboy outfits, Cash regularly wore all black, which earned him the nickname ‘The Man In Black’. In his song of the same name he explained he did this in mourning for all the people who have died young. He also felt a great compassion for prisoners. He performed regular prison concerts, and his live albums Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash at San Quentin are among his most successful.
Cash went on to have a long and successful career. He wrote over a thousand songs, and sang with many great artists, including Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and U2. He had his own TV show, The Johnny Cash Show, starred in several films and wrote a novel. He even has his own museum. The influence of Johnny Cash can be felt across music and his legacy will live on.
Johnny died in 2003, a few months after his wife, June Carter. He had suffered with several health problems including diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. Shortly before his death, Cash released a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt. The song is a great example of the power of music and is often cited as the greatest cover version of all time. The video is a brilliant epitaph to Cash’s life.