He was born J.R. Cash (‘John’ came later, and ‘Johnny’ was an invention of Sun Records chief Sam Phillips) in Kingsland, Arkansas, one of seven children in a family that worked a small farm.
He picked cotton as a child, tried his hand on a car assembly line, then joined the air force.
After his discharge, he married Vivian Liberto, moved to Memphis, sold appliances and in 1955 caught Sam Phillips’ ear and recorded tunes like Hey Porter and Cry Cry Cry.
When Johnny Cash first knocked on the door at Sun Studios, he offered his services as a gospel singer. Phillips said he couldn’t sell gospel, so the country icon started out as a rock & roller.
His records were stark, unsettling and totally original. The instrumentation was sparse, almost rudimentary: All you heard was bassist Marshall Grant, guitarist Luther Perkins, and Cash himself playing rhythm guitar, a piece of paper stuck underneath the top frets to give it a scratchy sound.
In 1958, Cash left Sun in a battle for money and artistic control.
At Columbia Records, he recorded country songs, folk songs, pop songs, gospel songs and a series of audacious concept albums about working men, the West, mistreatment of Native Americans and the like.
During this time he was also gripped by a vicious addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates. He consumed prodigious quantities, missed shows and recording sessions, left tales of excess and destruction in his wake, wrecked every car he drove and landed in jail seven times (albeit for overnight stays). His marriage broke up and his records became sillier.
Then, slowly, he turned it around. The religious faith he’d had since childhood helped. So did his growing friendship with June Carter, from country music’s seminal Carter Family. He gradually kicked pills. He also married Carter and hit his artistic stride with Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968).
Cash’s performance in front of 2,000 inmates (and a sizable contingent of heavily armed guards) at the rough California jail crackles with tension. Kicking off with Folsom Prison Blues – his 1956 hit that held understandable relevance to his audience – Cash set himself at one with the cranked crowd, almost to the exclusion of the custodians in the room.
A year after his famous and groundbreaking Folsom prison gig, Johnny Cash returned to the penitentiary circuit, this time to California’s foreboding San Quentin (at which the No. 2 hit A Boy Named Sue was recorded).
Between 1968 and 1971, Cash was as big a star as anyone in music. His glory days seemed to pass after that, but the good work continued, if more sporadically.
A three-decade relationship with Columbia soured and ended in the mid-80s, and Cash moved to Polygram, where he continued releasing albums which were all fine but never sold much.
In his later years, Cash was often in pain because of a jaw problem that began with an impacted wisdom tooth and ended, several misdiagnoses and botched procedures later, with a platinum plate permanently holding his broken jaw together.
Johnny Cash died on 12 September 2003 in the Baptist hospital in Nashville, aged 71.