Johnny Cash was blessed with perhaps the most distinctive voice in country music history. If he’s not at the top of the list, he’s at least close to the top with Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton (who once had a crush on him). Cash’s mother called on God’s name and uttered seven prophetic words when she heard him sing at the age of 17.
A young Cash helped out on his family’s cotton farm, where he spent his days singing gospels and traditional folk songs. He tuned his radio to big city stations at night when they played blues music and the Grand Ole Opry in his rural Arkansas home.
He dreamed of being a musician from a young age, but he didn’t walk a straight line to get there. Cash had two terrible jobs—on an auto assembly line and in a margarine factory—that were somehow worse than picking cotton. He couldn’t hold out for either of them.
Cash’s four years in the Air Force (beginning in 1950) fared better. He formed his first band on duty – something he shared with Jimi Hendrix, the electric guitar maestro who was 10 years his junior. Drafted before him in the military, Cash’s mother predicted his future success in just seven words.
It’s hard to imagine Cash singing in any other pitch than his silky, ingrained baritone, but he wasn’t born with that singing voice. It had to wait a while to acquire its signature sound.
In 1949, a year before he joined the Air Force, his voice finally changed into the one music fans came to know and love. When Cash’s mother first heard him sing it, she called on God’s name and foretold its future in just seven words (per Johnny Cash: The Life and Legacy of the Man in Black Author Alan Light):
Cash didn’t have to wait too long for success. In December 1956, just over two years after he was discharged from the Air Force, he joined Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis for an impromptu recording session. That came after he released two singles in 1955.
By 1958 he had five Billboard Hot Country Songs hits, four of which – “The Ways of a Woman in Love,” “All Over Again,” “You’re the Nearest Thing to Heaven,” and “What Do I Care,” – were top 10 hits. That was just the tip of the iceberg.
It had broad appeal that reached non-country fans, but the only cash album to top the Billboard albums chart was 1969 At San Quentin. It spent 70 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart and topped the chart for four weeks shortly after its June release. His success was more pronounced on the country charts.
During his six-decade career, Cash has charted 119 songs on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Nine reached #1, including “Ring of Fire” and the gospel “Daddy Sang Bass”. He had an incredible 33 top 10 albums on the country charts, 11 of which reached #1.
Looking back on his career, Johnny Cash’s mother was right about her son’s future. She predicted he would be a popular singer and his decades of success proves her prediction was 20-20.
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