He was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, the son of a poor farmer. His family soon moved into a farm in Dyess, Arkansas—provided cheaply by the government as part of the New Deal—and by age five he was working in the cotton fields. He began playing guitar and writing songs as a young boy and in high school sang on a local radio station.
After serving in the United States Air Force, Cash moved to Memphis, Tennessee where he sold appliances and studied to be a radio announcer. At night, he played in a trio and one day approached Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Because he had been singing mainly gospel tunes, Phillips said "go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell." He did and in 1955 his first recording at Sun, "Cry Cry Cry", was released, meeting with reasonable success on the country hit parade.
His next record, "Folsom Prison Blues", made the country Top 5, and "I Walk the Line" was number one on the country charts, making it into the pop charts Top 20. In 1957, Johnny Cash became the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album. The following year he left Sun to sign a lucrative offer with Columbia Records where his single, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," would become one of his biggest hits.
Within a few years, Johnny Cash had to battle drug problems that severely affected his career and on several occasions he wound up spending a night in jail, charged with a variety of offenses. Despite this, his record, "Ring of Fire," went to number one on the country charts and broke the Top 20 on the pop charts.
Although Cash carefully cultivated a romantic outlaw image, he actually spent very little time behind bars. While on tour in 1965, he was arrested by the narcotics squad in El Paso, Texas for attempting to smuggle amphetamines into the country stashed inside his guitar case, but he only received a suspended sentence. He was also arrested the next year for trespassing late at night onto private property to pick flowers. More notably, he voluntarily entered California's Folsom State Prison in 1968 to perform 19 songs in a classic live concert that was recorded in front of approximately 2,000 convicted felons.
The mid 1960s saw Cash release a number of concept records, including Ballads Of The True West (1965) -- an experimental double record mixing authentic frontier songs with Cash's spoken narration, let down by the modern arrangements -- and Bitter Tears (1964), with songs highlighting the plight of the native Americans. However, his drug addiction deepened, and his destructive behaviour led to a divorce and numerous problems performing.
For his album, Bitter Tears, Cash recorded the Peter LaFarge song called "The Ballad of Ira Hayes". The song told the true saga of Hayes, a Pima Indian who was one of the Marine heroes of the epic WWII battle at Iwo Jima. Despite his heroism, Hayes returned home to crushing despair and to the racism that never disappeared: "Ira Hayes returned a hero, celebrated throughout the land/ He was wined and speeched and honoured, everybody shook his hand/ But He was just a Pima Indian, no water, no home, no chance/ At home nobody cared what Ira had done, and when do the Indians dance?" Though "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" was a No. 3 country single, many stations refused to play it, deeming it too risky. Cash took out a full-page ad in Billboard denouncing country radio for its reluctance. " 'Ballad of Ira Hayes' is strong medicine," he wrote. "So is Rochester -- Harlem -- Birmingham and Vietnam."
The personal problems continued until he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, purchasing a home at Old Hickory Lake next door to his friend Roy Orbison, whose home burned down in 1968, claiming the lives of his two young sons. Deeply affected by Orbison's tragedy, Cash was trying to make changes in his life, including his marriage to June Carter (a member of the Carter Family), who had co-written "Ring of Fire", that year.
With Carter's help, and influenced by a religious conversion experienced during a failed suicide attempt, he became a born-again Christian and overcame his addictions. Soon, Johnny Cash released his most successful album ever titled "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison." The following year, he released another prison album titled, "Johnny Cash at San Quentin" that included Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue." Released as a single, "A Boy Named Sue" went to number one on the country charts and to number three on the US Top Ten pop charts.
Immensely popular, and an imposing tall figure, he began performing dressed all in black, wearing a long black knee-length coat, causing him to be dubbed "The Man in Black." This stemmed from the fact that most of the major acts in his day wore rhinestones and cowboy boots, and he wanted to express something different. In 1971, Johnny wrote the song "Man in Black" to help explain his dress code: "I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,/ Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,/ I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,/ But is there because he's a victim of the times."
In 1969 he had his own television show on the ABC network and sang with Bob Dylan on Dylan's country-rock album, "Nashville Skyline."
In the mid-'70s, Cash's popularity and hit songs began to decline, but his autobiography, titled "Man in Black" was published in 1975 and sold 1.3 million copies. (A second, "Cash: The Autobiography", appeared in 1998). In 1980, Cash became the Country Music Hall of Fame's youngest living inductee at 48, but during the 1980s his records failed to make a major impact on the country charts, though he continued to tour successfully. In the mid 1980s he recorded and toured with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson as the Highwaymen, making two hit albums.
As his relationship with record companies and the Nashville establishment soured, he occasionally lapsed into self-parody, notably on "Chicken In Black".
His career was rejuvenated in the 1990s. Unwanted by major labels he signed with Rick Rubin's "American Recordings" label, better known for rap and hard rock than country music. Under Rubin's supervision he recorded the album American Recordings (1994) in his front room, accompanied only by his guitar, which was well received by critics, while his versions of songs by more modern artists such as heavy metal band Danzig and Tom Waits helped to bring him a new audience. Cash wrote that his reception at the 1994 Glastonbury Festival was one of the highlights of his career.
The formula was repeated on Unchained (1998) which, in addition to many of Cash's own compositions, contained songs by Soundgarden ("Rusty Cage") and Beck ("Rowboat"), as well as a guest appearance from Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
In 1997 Cash was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease Shy-Drager syndrome -- a diagnosis that was later altered to autonomic neuropathy, associated with diabetes -- and his illness forced him to curtail his touring, and he was hospitalised in 1998 with severe pneumonia, which damaged his lungs. The album A Solitary Man (2000) contained his response to the illness, typified by a version of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down", as well as a powerful reading of U2's "One".
Over the course of his career, Johnny Cash won 11 Grammy awards, one of which came for a 1985 album with Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Titled, "The Class Of '55," the record celebrated their debut days at Sun Records. He received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1999.
Johnny Cash was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. In 1996 he was honored with a Kennedy Center Award and he has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6320 Hollywood Blvd.
In 2002, he was honored at the Americana Awards show with a "Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award".
Cash released American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) consisting partly of original material and partly of covers, some quite surprising. The video for "Hurt", a song written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, was nominated in seven categories at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards and won the award for Best Cinematography. It also won a Grammy Award for best short form video at the 2004 Grammy awards.
His wife, June Carter Cash, died due to complications following heart valve surgery, on May 15, 2003 at the age of 71. June also won an award at the 2004 Grammy award ceremony.
Johnny Cash died due to complications from diabetes, which resulted in respiratory failure, while hospitalized at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. He was interred next to his wife in Hendersonville Memory Gardens near his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
In recognition of his life long support of SOS Children's Villages his family invited friends and fans to donate to SOS Children's Villages in his memory. He had a personal link with the SOS village in Ammersee in Diessen, Germany near where he was stationed as a GI and also with the SOS Children's Village Barrat Town, by Montego Bay near his holiday home in Jamaica.