I love Johnny Cash and his music. For as long as I remember, I have been a fan. And I still regularly listen to Johnny Cash songs even now. Quite frankly, it is something I will probably do until it is also my turn to meet my maker.
The Man in Black had a full and interesting life. Johnny Cash’s music career was filled with highs. But, his personal life was equally filled with lows. For many years, he struggled with mental health issues and addiction. Consequently, answering the question, “How did Johnny Cash die?” requires a closer look at the man, his life, and his career leading up to his death. Let’s get started.
Johnny Cash was born on February 26th, 1932. He was raised in Arkansas in a rural community. When he was just five years old, his family moved to a colony provided by the government. This allowed them to work on the land that they would later be given the option of owning.
Johnny Cash was just five years old when he was put to work with the rest of his family, picking cotton in the fields. As they worked together, they would frequently sing. This is where Johnny Cash first got his taste and love of music.
At twelve years old, he had to deal with the death of his elder brother, Jack, who died in a horrific farming accident. At around this time, Johnny began learning the guitar from his mother and a friend. He would also begin to write songs about his life and experiences.
As a child, he was most heavily influenced by Gospel Music…
Although, he also showed a keen interest in Irish Music whenever it was played on the radio. Within six years of starting to play the guitar, he had become reasonably proficient. He was also becoming an accomplished singer and getting used to signing in a deep baritone voice following his voice change from a tenor a few years previous.
This all brings us neatly to his enlisting in the Air Force in 1950…
Johnny Cash stayed in the Air Force for four years and specialized in radio communications. Later, he was assigned to the 12th Radio Squadron as a Morse code operator, taking him to Landsberg, Germany. Interestingly, this involved intercepting messages from the USSR which led to him being the first person in America to know of Stalin’s death.
In 1954, he was discharged from the Air Force as a staff sergeant and returned to Texas. Shortly after, in the same year, he married his first wife, Vivian Liberto. He had met her before being posted to Germany and had obsessively corresponded with right up until his discharge.
I am only going to touch briefly on the illustrious career of Johnny Cash. That’s because Johnny Cash released over two hundred singles and two hundred albums. Consequently, I will just stick with the highlights. As well as provide context for how it relates to Johnny Cash’s life and eventual death.
In 1954, he auditioned for Sun Records but was turned away. Johnny Cash played Gospel music during his audition but was curtly told that they did not record that kind of music anymore. Allegedly, he was also told to go away, do some sinning, and return with some new songs later.
As most people know, Johnny would indeed go on to do some sinning…
But he listened carefully to what he was told and returned with some new songs. One of which was “Cry Cy Cry“. Sun Records were impressed enough that they signed him up. As a result, it became Johnny Cash’s debut release in 1955 and went to #14 on the US Country Charts. This was the start of his dazzling career and would result in over 90 million album sales worldwide.
The following year, Johnny Cash’s first #1 US Country song arrived with the wonderful “I Walk the Line“. It also gave him his first charting single on the main US charts, peaking at #17, and earned him his first gold disc on his home turf. “I Walk the Line” was quickly followed in the same year with “There You Go”. That track also went to #1 on the Country charts.
For the next 35 years…
He was seldomly out of the charts. Some of Johnny Cash’s biggest hits would include the Country chart-topping songs “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town“ in 1958 and “Ring of Fire“ in 1963. As well as his biggest hit song, “A Boy Named Sue“ in 1969, which also earned him his best Billboard Album Charts position at number two. His last #1 US Country hit was “One Piece at a Time” in 1976.
As his career took off, Cash slowly became addicted to painkillers and amphetamines. He also became heavily reliant on alcohol which caused him to get in a series of scrapes. Consequently, his life became less and less stable within a very short space of time.
Despite his incredible career success, his marriage quickly went sour. In 1966, Johnny Cash’s first wife, Vivian Liberto, called things to an end. They already had four daughters, but his constant drug use, drinking, and widespread adultery became too much. Additionally, his constant touring also put an even bigger strain on an already fragile marriage.
Around this period…
Cash had a series of run-ins with the law and spent a few nights in prison. He was arrested for drunk driving, trying to bribe a police officer, possession of pharmaceutical drugs, and various drunk and disorderly offenses.
In 1965, during a drunken and drug-infused session, he even managed to burn down 508 acres of forest land. That little stunt ended up costing him $82,001 after a court settlement. That isn’t a lot of money today but was a heck of a lot of money back in 1965.
Despite all his misdemeanors…
And, contrary to public perception, he never spent longer than a single night in jail at any one time. However, his frequent brushes with the law through the late-50s inspired him to come up with a novel idea. Performing live concerts in jail. The most famous of these was at San Quentin State Prison in 1958.
That performance was so successful that it was made into an album in 1969, Johnny Cash at San Quentin. Ironically, it would prove to be Johnny Cash’s best-selling album and kick-started his flagging career that had fallen into a bit of a slump due to his addictions.
The prison concerts did a lot for Johnny Cash, and he made sure that he gave back in return. He became an advocate for improved prison conditions and fought for other many other social injustices, such as those suffered by the Native Americans.
His period of turmoil had a brief respite from 1970 to 1977…
That was because two years earlier, he married his second wife, the famous June Carter, with whom he had a #2 US Country hit with “Jackson” in 1967. Three years later, they later had a son together, John Carter Cash. The birth of his son inspired him to get clean. But, sadly, by the end of the 70s, Johnny was back to using drugs again.
His life from that point was a vicious cycle of drug-using and failed rehabilitation attempts. It was also punctuated by his wife’s frequent requests for him to quit, interspersed with her flushing away his various stacks of drugs. A terrible way to live.
How Did Johnny Cash Die? – Health Issues
By the 1990s, Johnny Cash was beginning to suffer from several health issues. He suffered from a series of heart problems that would ultimately require a double-bypass surgery. Additionally, he had diabetes, neuropathy, and Shy Drager Syndrome, which is closely associated with Parkinson’s. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, he also experienced frequent bouts of pneumonia.
So, what was going on?
For starters, he was getting old. However, that was only a small part of the story. His widespread use of amphetamines and painkillers was catching up with him. Plus, his drinking was further exacerbating his already poor health condition.
The sad fact is that all of Johnny Cash’s illnesses have an increased chance of occurring if you are drinking and abusing drugs. Additionally, if you do have these conditions, they will only get worse if you continue to abuse your body. Consequently, it is fair to say that Johnny Cash ended up a victim of his behavior and actions over the course of most of his adult life.
Things looked increasingly bleak for Johnny Cash. Then, they got a whole lot worse. That is because, out of the blue, his beloved wife was admitted to hospital in 2003 with a heart condition that required immediate treatment. Sadly, she never recovered and died in hospital. This was effectively also the end for Johnny Cash.
The Final Months and Death
June was always expected to outlive Johnny. So, her death was unexpected even though she was a couple of years older. When she died, it was as if a light was switched off for Johnny. His rock and the glue that held his life together were no more.
Before she died, he had promised her that in the unlikely event that she died first, he would continue to record, and he was true to his word. Most poignantly, as one of Johnny Cash’s final recordings, he covered the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt.” This proved to be one of his greatest pieces of music and probably his best-ever video for which he won a Grammy. It was clearly his goodbye to the world.
He did not have long to wait long…
Johnny Cash passed away on September 12th, 2003. So, what was the cause of Johnny Cash’s death? Officially, it was complications caused by diabetes. However, we must go back to his early life and his rise to fame to fully answer this question.
That is because his inability to cope with stardom, plus his subsequent misuse and abuse of alcohol and drugs, were the real root cause of his death.
Curious About How Other Famous Musicians Died?
If so, check out our thoughts on How Did Elvis Presley Die, How Did Marvin Gaye Die, How Did Michael Jackson Die, How Did Whitney Houston Die, and How Did Amy Winehouse Die for more information about famous musician deaths.
How Did Johnny Cash Die? – Final Thoughts
Johnny Cash had a fascinating life filled with success, awards, and accolades. However, behind the fame and glitz was a man that struggled to keep his life together. He was a man who fought regularly to vanquish his personal demons. But, sadly, he was all too often on the losing side.
The answer to how Johnny Cash died is tied to the way he tried to cope with success and how he conducted his private life. Plus, more importantly, how he looked after, or rather, how he neglected his health. He left us far too early, but I am glad he got to walk amongst us, and I thank him for the music.
Until next time, let the music play.