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Johnny Cash was one of the most successful music artists of all time. A country music icon, his songs and his sound embraced many genres, including rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, folk, and gospel. He sold more than 90 million records worldwide.
With his all-black performing wardrobe, the ‘Man in Black’ became famous for his honest and sombre demeanor, free prison concerts, and calming bass-baritone voice. He opened his concerts with a simple “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” followed up with his signature song, Folsom Prison Blues.
But great success came at a price.
Cash struggled with addictions to alcohol and drugs, watched his personal life flounder, and spent nights in jails across America. Deep sorrow, moral tribulations, and the need for redemption are common themes found in his music, and they echo a life full of deep feelings and difficult experiences.
In honor of the Man in Black and the lasting legacy of his music, here are 86 of the best Johnny Cash Quotes.
J.R. Cash was born on February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas to Ray Cash and Carrie Cloveree (née Rivers). He was the fourth of seven children, 4 boys and 3 girls. When Cash was three years old, the family settled in Dyess, Arkansas, a “New Deal” colony that had been established to give poor families the opportunity to work land that they could later own.
From the age of five, he worked in the cotton fields with his family, singing with them as they worked. At home, J.R. and his siblings listened to gospel music and the radio.
On May 12, 1944, an accident occurred that was to change Johnny Cash’s life and outlook. His older brother Jack, with whom he was very close, was fatally injured at the high school he was working in. He was pulled into an unguarded table saw while cutting oak into fence posts, and was almost cut in two; he died from his injuries a week later.
In his autobiography, Cash spoke of the guilt he felt over this incident, as he, his mother, and even Jack himself all had a deep sense of foreboding about that particular day. His mother urged Jack to skip work and go fishing with his brother, but he insisted on working to bring the money home to his family.
The family’s personal and economic struggles during the Great Depression inspired many of Johnny Cash’s later songs, especially those about poor workers who were facing similar difficulties.
Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force on July 7, 1950. He did his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and his technical training at Brooks Air Force Base, both in San Antonio, Texas. He was assigned to the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile of the U.S. Air Force Security Service in Germany, where he worked as a Morse code operator intercepting Soviet Army transmissions.
He was honorably discharged four years later, and returned to Texas. It was during his military service that he acquired the distinctive scar on the right side of his jaw as a result of surgery to remove a cyst.
Later that year (1954) Cash and his young wife Vivian moved to Memphis, Tennessee. He sold appliances while studying to be a radio announcer, playing with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant by night.
Cash worked up the courage to visit the Sun Records studio in hopes of a recording contract. But when he auditioned for Sam Phillips, singing mostly gospel songs, the producer told him that he no longer recorded gospel music.
Sam Phillips was rumored to have told Johnny Cash to “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.” Cash eventually won over the producer with new songs delivered in his early rockabilly style. In 1955, Cash made his first recordings at Sun, “Hey Porter” and “Cry! Cry! Cry!”, which were released in late June and met with success on the country hit parade.
1957 saw Cash bringing out the music for which he became most famous: “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line,” the latter becoming number one on the country charts and even crossed over into the pop chart. “Home of the Blues” followed and that same year, Cash became the first Sun artist to release a long-playing album.
Although he was Sun’s most consistently selling and prolific artist at that time, Cash felt constrained by his contract with the small label. Phillips did not want Cash to record gospel music at all, and was paying him a 3% royalty rather than the standard rate of 5%. In 1958, Cash followed in Elvis Presley’s footsteps and left Sun, signing a lucrative offer with Columbia Records.
His single “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” became one of his biggest hits, and he was finally able to record a collection of gospel songs for his second album. When you hear the name Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison comes to mind. In the late fifties he started to perform concerts in California prisons like Folsom and San Quentin, which led to successful live recordings. Central to The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash documentary, which premiered at SXSW, these concerts propelled his fame to new heights.
As his career began to really take off, Cash started drinking heavily and became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates. He briefly shared an apartment in Nashville with Waylon Jennings, whose own addiction fueled Cash’s.
He relied on stimulants to stay awake during tours, and though people turned a blind eye to his “nervousness” and erratic behavior, his drug addiction was worsening. It led to cancelled performances, and Cash was arrested seven times for misdemeanors.
In 1967, the singer was jailed for the night in LaFayette, Georgia. He was released after a long talk from Sheriff Ralph Jones, who warned him about the danger of his behavior and his wasted potential.
Johnny Cash had met Vivian Liberto in San Antonio in July 1951, just before his 3-year deployment to Germany. They married a month after his discharge, and had four daughters: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. Liberto filed for divorce in 1966, stating Cash’s serious drug and alcohol abuse, constant touring, and affairs with other women, as reasons. She then raised the couple’s four daughters alone.
Cash met the love of his life, singer June Carter, while he was on tour. The two became absolutely infatuated with each other, despite the fact that they were both married to other people (and Johnny’s continued addiction issues). In 1968, 13 years after they first met, Cash proposed to June during a live performance in London, Ontario. They married on March 1, 1968, in Franklin, Kentucky and went on to have one child together, John Carter Cash, who was born March 3, 1970.
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash continued to work, raise their child, create music, and tour together for 35 more years, until June died in May 2003. Cash stated that he believed that his only reason for living was his music. He passed away just four months after she did, on 12 September 2003.
Their great love story is central to the 2005 biographical movie Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny and June.
Early in 1967, Cash had a spiritual epiphany in the Nickajack Cave. Cash, under the influence of drugs, supposedly attempted to commit suicide. He descended into the cave, trying to lose himself and “just die,” but instead passed out on the floor.
There he felt God’s presence in his heart and followed a faint light and slight breeze out of the cave to safety. To him, the incident represented a rebirth – a second chance.
June and her parents Maybelle and Ezra moved into Cash’s mansion for a month to help him get off drugs. It took time for him to break his addictions to drugs, but June, their son John Carter Cash, and his faith, ultimately helped Johnny Cash to get back to life on the straight and narrow. He also developed a friendship with Billy Graham, and was inspired to produce a film about Jesus’ life.
On Being ‘The Man in Black’
Early in his career, Cash was given the nickname “the Undertaker” by fellow artists because he had a habit of wearing black clothes. He said he chose them because they were easier to keep looking clean when performing every night on long tours; and it was also the only color that he and his bandmates all had in their traveling wardrobe.
By 1970, the image of Johnny Cash as ‘The Man in Black’ was fully formed. In contrast with the rhinestone suits and cowboy boots worn by other major country acts, Cash stood out for performing dressed all in black, wearing a long, black, knee-length coat. He is also known to have said that he wore black for the poor and the hungry, in honor of the prisoner who had paid for his crime, and in mourning for the lives lost by Americans in the Vietnam War.
10 Johnny Cash Facts
2. He bought his first guitar in Öberammergau, Germany, while in the US Air Force.
3. Cash became an ordained minister, and presided over the wedding of his daughter Karen.
4. He didn’t write his most famous song. “Ring of Fire” was written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore, and was actually released first by June’s sister Anita Carter. Cash made it his own by adding the Mariachi horns.
5. During a hotel stay in the 1950s, Cash and his bandmates let 500 baby chicks loose.
6. Johnny Cash was a campaigner for Native American rights. In 1966, the Seneca Nation’s Turtle Clan adopted Cash for his activism.
7. He released an incredible 96 albums and 170 singles over a career that spanned from 1954 to 2003.
9. A species of tarantula in Folsom, CA is named after him: the “Aphonopelma johnnycashi.”
10. Only two people have been inducted into to the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame: Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
Bonus Fact: The opening montage of Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead is set to Cash’s iconic song, The Man Comes Around.
Did we forget any of your favorite Johnny Cash Quotes? Let us know or submit your favorite and stay inspired!