Growing up in a hard-working cotton-farming family in Arkansas in the wake of the Great Depression
, Johnny Cash's humble origins helped shape the charismatic man he later became: the all-American boy who had to struggle with his own demons, even while taking pity on all other suffering people, including Native Americans and prisoners. After a brief stint sweeping floors in an auto factory after high school, Cash enlisted in the Air Force and served time in Landsberg, Germany; it was during this period that he formed his first band and began songwriting. However, it wasn't until over a decade later, in the late sixties, that his career reached epic heights with the popularity of his prison tour and subsequent albums.
When we think of the music of the sixties these days, Johnny Cash is probably not the first thing that springs to mind. Maybe it's because his rough and edgy mix of country, rock, and American folk music had little resemblance to the psychedelic pop rock acts from England (think The Beatles and The Rolling Stones) that we all associate with the decade of LSD and flower power. Growing up in a hard-working farming family in the American South groomed a much different performer than the young lads from across the pond who changed rock n' roll. But we need to keep in mind that the late 1960s marked the zenith of Johnny Cash's decades-long musical journey, and his prison tours produced some of the most influential and critically acclaimed albums of the 20th century. At the same time, Cash was working to pull himself out of the hellhole he had made of his personal life in the earlier part of the decade and put his career back on track. Cash became a poster child for perseverance, and it was his fighting spirit and refusal to back down that kept him going through even his darkest hours: "Self-esteem and perseverance and confidence are all important, but the first thing is to know what you want to do. Set that goal out there and never lose sight of it, and work toward it. And know that there are going to be byways and sidetracks, but keep persevering and keep on, and do what you know that you want to do."
Cash's life during the sixties was one of enormous transition and growth. He had just emerged from a period of serious drug abuse and married June Carter, the woman who would change his life forever: "The big thing about the music in my life, we shared it. We have a sharing marriage, and we share the road, we share the bedroom, we share the backstage, onstage, we share the music, the feeling, and the emotion, and the joy of it, you know. And the pain and the sadness of it. We share the love of our children. It would be terribly lonely not to have someone to share those things with me. And she's not only a lady who I share my life with, but she may have been the person responsible for my still being alive. She and God. Because she came along at a time in my life that I was on self-destruct, and she saw what I was doing to myself and she helped bring me back up out of it. And we've fought and worked hard to keep our feet on the ground since then. But like I say, today is a good day."
In some ways, in fact, Cash's life and music was more fully in tune with the social upheaval of the decade than the more musically adventurous work of people like Jimi Hendrix. Rather than focus on sonic experimentation, Cash chose instead to explore one of the major themes of the decade: the battle for rights and freedoms for the disenfranchised. To Johnny Cash, that meant prisoners.