Forever known as country music's iconic Man in Black, Johnny Cash was a man of contradictions and deep-seated convictions, who never ceased to push himself as an artist or as a human being. Born poor in the South, Cash experienced tragedy at an early age when his older brother, Jack, died in a horrible work-related accident. It was a devastating shock that surely informed much of the darker aspects of Cash's troubled personal life and artistic output throughout his coming career. After signing on to legendary Sun Records in the mid-1950s, Cash became a national sensation with signature numbers like "I Walk the Line." Subsequent hits followed, combined with an intense touring schedule that fueled an addiction to narcotics. In the early 1960s, Cash began a long acting career with a leading role in the low-budget crime drama "Door-to-Door Maniac" (1961), and later, in the anti-Western "A Gunfight" (1971), opposite film legend Kirk Douglas. On television, he hosted several musical variety shows, like "Johnny Cash and Friends" (CBS, 1975-76), and would go on to star in made-for-TV movies, such as "The Pride of Jesse Hallam" (CBS, 1981). Cash's influence ranged beyond mere country music, however, as he was a staunch supporter of prison reform - as evidenced by his incendiary concerts at Folsom and San Quentin State Prisons - as well as Native American rights, while also being a deeply religious person. Cash was on personal terms with each sitting American President, starting with Richard Nixon, until the time of his death, and performed with non-country artists like U2 and Nine Inch Nails. Shortly after the death of his beloved wife, June Carter, Cash himself passed away in 2003. Two years later, the critically acclaimed biopic "Walk the Line" (2005) would serve as a fitting epitaph for a man who fearlessly explored both mankind's darkness and light in both his art and his life.
John R. Cash was born into a large, but struggling farm family on Feb. 26, 1932 in Kingsland, AR. The family crop - like those of many Southern households - was cotton, and John and his four siblings picked it by hand, year after year. However, young John always had an ear for music, and enjoyed listening to and singing church hymns with his mother - much to the consternation of his father, who considered it a frivolous pastime during such hard times. Times became even harder for the family when Cash's older brother, Jack, was killed in a grisly accident involving an industrial saw. It was an event that would reverberate throughout the remainder of the young Cash's life. Although music remained a strong side interest of his, Cash initially worked fulltime at an automobile factory in Michigan for a period before he joined the Air Force in 1950. Upon completing his tour of duty - which included a stint in Germany - Cash returned to the South and married young Vivien Liberto, settling down in Memphis, TN. Working as a door-to-door salesman, Cash still could not shake the urge to perform music, prompting him to take a course in radio announcing. Not surprisingly, merely introducing songs was not enough, so he soon auditioned for Sun Records, signing a contract in record time with Sun's legendary producer Sam Philips, who was already jumpstarting the career of a young Elvis Presley. Cash's first single was the underperforming "Hey, Porter." However, Cash soon blossomed under the label, scoring Top 10 hits like "Folsom Prison Blues," and jamming with soon-to-be-superstars such as Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins - the four of them would eventually earn the appropriate nickname, "The Million Dollar Quartet."
But even as Cash grew in popularity, his music remained dark and frequently menacing. Lyrics for "I Walk the Line" and "Ring of Fire" - the latter co-written by fellow performer June Carter - betrayed a man beset by pain, loneliness and ceaseless temptation. Much of that inner turmoil was in part due to Cash's unrequited love for Carter, whom he eventually married in 1968, after splitting from his first wife, with whom he had already had children. It was Carter who brought the wayward Cash back to his religious roots, in part to help him with his growing addiction to prescription drugs and painkillers. Cash became a reinvigorated churchgoer, going on to record multiple gospel albums throughout his life. But he also continued to battle his drug-fueled inner demons, too, which led to destructive behavior and recurring trouble with the law, until he finally overcame his addictions. While steeped in tradition, Cash was also an innovator. He defended Bob Dylan after the folk singer caused an uproar by "going electric," and later in life Cash recorded music with ultra-modern groups like the Irish rockers U2. But perhaps his most famous endeavor was when he recorded a pair of controversial live albums at two small concerts at the infamous Folsom and San Quentin State Prisons, resulting in Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash at San Quentin. Record producers were leery at first, fearing that Cash's open kinship and empathy for the convicted men would alienate his base of religious fans. Undeterred, Cash maintained that forgiveness and caring were cornerstones of his beliefs, and the records went on to become two of his biggest hits.
Although Cash never again achieved the heights of his musical output in the 1950s and 1960s, he remained popular in the decades that followed, enjoying a side career as an actor, beginning most notably with "Door-to-Door Maniac" (1961), a low-budget crime drama in which he played an unstable member of a group of bank robbers who terrorizes a town by knocking on doors at random and brutally killing the inhabitants. Cash also made cameos as himself in movies like the half-baked musical comedy "Hootenanny Hoot" (1963). He even briefly starred in his own country music show, "The Johnny Cash Show" (ABC, 1969-1971), which introduced America to the likes of future star Kris Kristofferson. Cash had another big screen turn as a weary gunman opposite Kirk Douglas in the post-modern Western "A Gunfight" (1971). Demonstrating a willingness to embrace all arenas of pop culture, over the years Cash would frequently pop up on such seemingly unlikely shows as "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" (NBC, 1967-1973) and even "The Muppet Show" (syndicated, 1976-1981). Never one to shy away from a challenge, Cash co-wrote, produced and starred in the much-maligned Christian docudrama "Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus" (1973), as well as tried his hand at variety television again with the short-lived "Johnny Cash and Friends" (CBS, 1975-76).
Dividing his time between recording music and acting, Cash took part in made-for-television fare such as "Thaddeus Rose and Eddie" (CBS, 1978) in the title role opposite Bo Hopkins, Diane Ladd and June Carter Cash, as well as "The Pride of Jesse Hallam" (CBS, 1981), landing the title role once again as a Kentuckian who overcomes his illiteracy after moving to the big city. He also starred in the above-average "Murder in Coweta County" (CBS, 1983) as a dogged country sheriff who pursues a despicable tycoon (Andy Griffith) who believes himself above the law. These were followed by a part in the all-star cast of "North and South" (ABC, 1985), the highly rated miniseries based on John Jakes' American Civil War novels. Cash later teamed with his good friend Kristofferson for the telepic "The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James" (ABC, 1986) as the legendary outlaw brothers. That same year, both stars joined their old friends Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings - band mates in the country supergroup The Highwaymen - to headline a country star-filled TV remake of the John Ford classic, "Stagecoach" (CBS, 1986). Along with headlining and appearing in scores of music-oriented specials, Cash also acted on several series, including a recurring role in the mid-1990s as Kid Cole on "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" (CBS, 1992-98), and a memorably hilarious bit on "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ) as the voice of the Coyote in Homer's chili pepper-induced psychedelic journey in the 1997 episode "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Homer." Cash's final film performance was as the uncredited narrator of the Tommy Lee Jones-Benicio Del Toro action movie "The Hunted" (2003).
Johnny Cash remained restless, and innovative up until the very end, recording a cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt," with the powerful video that accompanied it going into heavy rotation on MTV. Then, after 35 years of marriage and collaboration, June Carter Cash passed away in May of 2003. An extremely bereft Cash passed away only months later on September 12th of that same year due to complications from diabetes and perhaps, fans came to believe, a bit of a broken heart from his lost love. However, his legend lived on - not just in his music, but in director James Mangold's successful and highly regarded biopic "Walk the Line" (2005). Based on Cash's two autobiographies, the movie focused on the musician's rise to fame, his struggles with addiction, and most prominently, his initially stormy, but always supportive relationship with June. The film featured a blistering pair of performances from Joaquin Phoenix as Cash (a casting choice approved by the late singer) and Reese Witherspoon as June. Both actors acquitted themselves admirably as singers, performing all of the couple's tunes in the film.
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Joined the Air Force for a four-year stint; stationed in Germany
Teamed with two friends to form a small gospel band
Signed with producer Sam Phillips at Sun records as as Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two; released "Cry Cry Cry" as their debut single
Released a second single, "Folsom Prison Blues," and shortly after its follow-up, the dual country and pop hit "I Walk the Line"
Made his Grand Ole Opry debut, appearing all in black, earning him the nickname "The Man in Black"
Signed with Columbia Records, and released the moderate pop/top hit <i>Don't Take Your Guns to Town</i>
Started working with June Carter of the legendary Carter Family
Returned to the top of the charts with "Ring of Fire" co-wrote by future wife June Carter
Arrested at the El Paso international airport in possession of stimulants and tranquilizers
After being found near death in a small Georgia town, Cash decided to reform and with the help of June Carter cleaned up his act
Achieved crossover success with the live album <i>At Folsom Prison</i>, which was recorded before an audience of prisoners
Hosted a smash variety program for television, "The Johnny Cash Show"
Appeared in first feature film "A Gunfight," with Kirk Douglas
Produced, cowrote, and narrated documentary film "The Gospel Road"
Wrote autobiography <i>Man in Black</i>
Became the youngest inducted into the Country Music Association Hall of Fame
Joined Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson to tour and record as the Highwaymen
Appeared in the television movie "Stagecoach," with the other Highwaymen, and Davey Crockett
Reunited with old Sun alumni Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison for Class of '55, contributing "I Will Rock and Roll With You"
Signed with Mercury Records and released <i>Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town</i>
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Contributed a vocal performance to "Zooropa," by rock superstars U2
Signed a contract with American Records, and released the album <i>American Recordings</i>, a stark, acoustic collection of songs
Recorded an album with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which featured several Cash originals
Garnered considerable acclaim and media attention for the Mark Romanek-directed video for his cover of Nine Inch Nails' <i>Hurt</i>; earned a nomination for video of the year at the MTV Video Music Awards
<i>American V: A Hundred Highways</i> a posthumous album was released by longtime producer and friend Rick Rubin