Johnny Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, the fourth of seven children to Ray Cash (May 13, 1897, Kingsland, Arkansas – December 23, 1985, Hendersonville Tennessee) and Carrie Cloveree (née Rivers; March 13, 1904, Rison, Arkansas – March 11, 1991, Hendersonville, Tennessee). He was named J. R. Cash because his parents could not think of a name. When Cash enlisted in the Air Force, they wouldn’t let him use initials as his name, so he started to use the legal name John R. Cash. In 1955, when signing with Sun Records, he took Johnny Cash as his stage name.
The Cash children were: Roy, Margaret Louise, Jack, J. R., Reba, Joanne and Tommy. His younger brother, Tommy Cash, also became a successful country artist.
In March 1935, when Cash was three years old, the family settled in Dyess, Arkansas. He started working in cotton fields at age five, singing along with his family while working. The family farm was flooded on at least two occasions, which later inspired him to write the song “Five Feet High and Rising”. His family’s economic and personal struggles during the Great Depression inspired many of his songs, especially those about other people facing similar difficulties.
Cash was very close to his older brother, Jack. In May 1944, Jack was pulled into a whirling head saw in the mill where he worked and was almost cut in two. He suffered for over a week before he died on May 20, 1944, at age 15. Cash often spoke of the horrible guilt he felt over this incident. According to Cash: The Autobiography, his father was away that morning, but he and his mother, and Jack himself, all had premonitions or a sense of foreboding about that day, causing his mother to urge Jack to skip work and go fishing with his brother. Jack insisted on working, as the family needed the money. On his deathbed, Jack said he had visions of heaven and angels. Decades later, Cash spoke of looking forward to meeting his brother in heaven.
Cash’s early memories were dominated by gospel music and radio. Taught guitar by his mother and a childhood friend, Cash began playing and writing songs at the age of twelve. When Cash was young, he had a high tenor voice, before becoming a bass-baritone. In high school he sang on a local radio station; decades later he released an album of traditional gospel songs, called My Mother’s Hymn Book. He was also significantly influenced by traditional Irish music that he heard performed weekly by Dennis Day on the Jack Benny radio program.
Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force on July 7, 1950. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and technical training at Brooks Air Force Base, both in San Antonio, Texas, Cash was assigned to the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile of the U.S. Air Force Security Service at Landsberg, Germany as a Morse Code Intercept Operator for Soviet Army transmissions. It was there he created his first band, named “The Landsberg Barbarians.” He was the first radio operator to pick up the news of the death of Joseph Stalin. He was honorably discharged as a Staff Sergeant on July 3, 1954, and returned to Texas.