Johnny Cash was born J. R. Cash on February 26, 1932. The Cash family is Scottish, descended from the Caesche clan, the name Americanized in the 1600s. J. R. was the fourth of seven children born to a dirt-poor Arkansas family. Parents Ray and Carrie worked hard at any job they could get, until the New Deal gave them a parcel of land in Arkansas where both parents and all the children picked cotton and tended the other crops that kept the family alive and paid the bills. J. R. grew up loving music. He had a friend who played guitar with a rhythm strum that he began to emulate, and despite his father's protests that it was a waste of his time, J. R. focused on music.
Much of Cash's general outlook on life was shaped by the traumatic death of his older brother, Jack, in 1944. Cash suffered an agony of guilt and depression over the loss of his brother. Cash speaks frankly of this event in Cash - The Autobiography, going deeply into how it affected him. But music helped him, especially gospel music (brother Jack had planned on becoming a preacher).
J. R. worked a number of different jobs, seeking for a way to get out of the cotton fields, before enlisting in US Air Force for a four-year term, where, legend has it, he adopted the first name "John" as the service would not accept plain initials (in "Cash - The Autobiography," he gives his birth name as "John."). He served in Germany, working as a radio intercept operator, in the early 50's. When he came back, he tried working for a while as a salesman before finally giving in to what he really wanted - music. Cash hounded Sam Phillips until Sam agreed to hear him, and signed him to Sun Records in 1955. His first record, "Cry! Cry! Cry!" backed with "Hey Porter" was recorded with the newly formed Tennessee Two (friends Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant) and hit the charts, so Johnny Cash was born.
He followed his initial modest success with power hits such as "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk The Line" before his desire to record gospel music conflicted with Sam Phillips' choice not to market same. Cash moved on to Columbia Records, where he recorded the bulk of his major hits throughout the 60's and 70's, including the amazing live albums At Folsom Prison, and At San Quentin, as well as Live at Madison Square Garden, which featured the entire Cash show (including the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers, and Carl Perkins). Cash remained with Columbia into the 80's, when Cash, trying to get out of his contract, recorded the sardonic novelty "Chicken in Black" (which, ironically, was his biggest hit in years) and finally parted ways with Columbia.