Johnny Cash was a popular country music recording artist who achieved widespread celebrity in the 1960s for his distinctive baritone-bass voice and songs that evoked traditional American characters, social outcasts, and the downtrodden. Among the most popular and successful musicians of the 1960s, Cash was a key contributor to the booming popularity of traditional music—including country and folk music—throughout the decade. Cash first became famous as a country musician, but during the 1960s, he cultivated a youthful audience that transcended musical genres. His unique style of authenticity, honesty, and mystery—illustrated by his dark clothing and evocative lyrics—appealed to younger audiences hungry for music beyond mainstream popular songs.
Cash, born on February 26, 1932, grew up in a poor cotton farming family in Dyess, Arkansas. His family lived for a time in a community developed as a New Deal project. The lessons of his rural childhood indelibly marked Cash's career and music. His lyrics frequently referenced rural life and poverty. After a brief stint as a factory worker in Michigan, Cash joined the Air Force and served in Germany, where he began performing and writing songs in the 1950s. Cash first achieved success as a recording artist in the mid-1950s when he joined the famous group of rockabilly musicians associated with Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. His country-rockabilly songs from the late 1950s, such as “I Walk the Line” and “Hey Porter,” established Cash as one of the most famous and successful musicians of any popular genre throughout the 1960s.
During the 1960s, Cash expanded his audience and musical repertoire beyond country music. He was unique among country musicians in forging an alliance between the folk movement and country music in that decade. Cash performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and 1969, and he worked closely with popular folk musicians such as Bob Dylan. Cash became one of the few major country musicians who found a large audience within the 1960s folk revival.
Cash also became closely associated with prisons and prisoners during the 1960s, based largely on a false belief that he had spent significant time in prison. The prisoner was a popular antihero in 1960s American culture. Cash's association with prisons and prisoners stemmed more from his popular prison songs, such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” than the reality of his two brief incarcerations for minor infractions. He nonetheless became an important spokesperson for convict rights. During a raucous 1968 concert in Folsom Prison, Cash cemented his credentials as the voice of many incarcerated Americans.
By the late 1960s, Cash leveraged his musical fame into a popular television show. The Johnny Cash Show premiered on ABC in 1969. The show was one of three major country music shows that began that year, alongside Glen Campbell's Goodtime Hour and Hee Haw. The Johnny Cash Show featured Cash and other musicians performing a wide variety of music. Much of the entertainment featured popular performers, but Cash also included folk musicians such as Bob Dylan and Doug Kershaw. The show also included unique historical footage. Cash died on September 12, 2003.