Walk the line of Johnny Cash : a short illustrated biography of the Man in Black

music portrait explained

Johnny Cash, singer, guitarist and songwriter was the Man in Black, one of the greatest American Icons that mixed country, rock, blues and gospel influences with his so "not typical" voice.

Here is the short biography of the man with my illustrations from his biographical portrait :

biography inside the drawinside portrait of johnny cash. art by pierre emmanuel


Born in the Cottonfields of the Great Depression.

johnny cash in the cotton fieldsIn March 1935, when Cash was three years old, the family settled in Dyess, Arkansas. He started working in cotton fields at the age of five, singing along with his family while working. 
His family's economic and personal struggles during the Great Depression inspired many of his songs, especially those about other people facing similar difficulties.

A close Brotherhood tragedy

johnny cash brother died while cutting wood

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, and live like a troubled man ever since his brother was killed.


A radio operator in Germany

johnny cash worked as radio operator in germanyOn July 18 1951, while in Air Force training, Cash met 17-year-old Vivian Liberto at a roller skating rink in her native San Antonio.

They dated for three weeks until Cash was deployed to Germany for a three-year tour.

During that time, the couple exchanged hundreds of pages of love letters.

On August 7, 1954, one month after his discharge, they were married at St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church in San Antonio.



Family man or Country legend ?

johnny cash the family man and country legend On August 7, 1954, one month after his discharge, johnny and Vivian were married at St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church in San Antonio.

The ceremony was performed by her uncle, Father Vincent Liberto.
They had four daughters: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara. Liberto stated that Cash's drug and alcohol abuse as well as constant touring, affairs with other women, and his close relationship with June Carter led her to file for divorce in 1966.


Carrer and Addictions

Addiction to music and drugs
As his career was taking off in the late 1950s, Cash started drinking heavily and became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates.
Cash used the uppers to stay awake during tours. 

In a behind-the-scenes look at The Johnny Cash Show, Cash claims to have "tried every drug there was to try.


"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash"

Johnny cash says fuck
He traditionally began his concerts with the simple "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash", followed by his signature "Folsom Prison Blues".

Although Cash carefully cultivated a romantic outlaw image, he never served a prison sentence. Despite landing in jail seven times for misdemeanors, each stay lasted only a single night.


God's presence

johnny cash met godIn 1968, after a spiritual epiphany in the Nickajack Cave, when he attempted to commit suicide while under the heavy influence of drugs.
He descended deeper into the cave, trying to lose himself and "just die", when he passed out on the floor.

He reported being exhausted and feeling at the end of his rope when he felt God's presence in his heart and managed to struggle out of the cave (despite the exhaustion) by following a faint light and slight breeze.

To him, it was his own rebirth.



Johnny and June

johnny cash met june carterCash made his wedding proposal to June onstage ! It happens at the London Gardens in London, Ontario, Canada, on February 22, 1968.

The couple married a week later (on March 1) in Franklin, Kentucky. She had agreed to marry Cash after he had "cleaned up".



Johnny Cash live in Prison

johnny cash plays in prisonCash felt great compassion for prisoners.

He began performing concerts at prisons starting in the late 1950s. His first prison concert was on January 1, 1959, at San Quentin State Prison.
These performances led to a pair of highly successful live albums, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969).


Ring of Fire

johnny cash plays guitar surrounded by a ring of fireAlthough he was in many ways spiraling out of control, Cash's frenetic creativity was still delivering hits.
His rendition of "Ring of Fire" was a crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and entering the Top 20 on the pop charts. 
The song was written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore and is a reference to his drugs and alcohol habits.


Walk the line

johnny cash walk the line on the roadOnce while performing the song on his TV show, Cash told the audience, with a smile, "People ask me why I always hum whenever I sing this song. It's to get my pitch."
The humming was necessary since the song required Cash to change keys several times while singing it.
Johnny, with the Temptations outside his door and a new wife at home, wanted the lyrics to say, "I’m going to be true to those who believe in me and depend on me to myself and God. Something like I’m still being true, or I’m 'Walking The Line.' 



A man in Black

johnny cash wears black clothes

He wore black on behalf of

the poor and hungry,

on behalf of "the prisoner who has long paid for his crime",

and on behalf of those who have been betrayed by age or drugs.

Cash's habit of performing in black attire began in a church. This habit was partially reflective of Cash's rebellion "against our hypocritical houses of God".

My portrait of Johnny Cash featuring all theses details is available here.

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