The Cowboy in Country Music: Johnny Cash


 Johnny Cash’s young son, John Carter, asked his Dad, “Who’s Gene Autry?” when the name of the famous singing cowboy came up in the Cash home. This inspired Cash to write and record a song, “Who’s Gene Autry?” in answer to his son’s question.


In that song Johnny Cash told of going to a Gene Autry movie and that when ole Gene was riding across the silver screen he rode along with the cowboy because ol’ Gene was an inspiration to a poor boy from the country. Gene Autry and the singing cowboys were a huge influence on Johnny Cash during his growing up years but that song was not the first time Cash dealt with cowboys, Indians and the West in his songs and recordings.

Johnny Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, on February 26, 1932, two years before Gene Autry went to Hollywood. The Cash family moved to the Dyess Colony in northeastern Arkansas, located on the Tyronza River, when young J.R., as he was known, was three years old. The Cash family grew cotton on their farm there for almost twenty years. This is where Johnny Cash lived for fifteen years, from 1935 until 1950.

Johnny Cash’s mother, Carrie Cash, bought him his first guitar from Sears, Roebuck and tried to teach young J.R. to play; but he wasn’t really interested and later sold it to another local boy. Instead, J.R. sat at the kitchen table every evening and listened to the radio. After he graduated from high school in 1950 Cash moved to Michigan, where he worked in an auto assembly line for two weeks.

Then he worked in an oleomargarine factory back in Arkansas before he enlisted in the air force that summer. Cash received his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, then received training as a radio operator before he was sent to Landsberg, Germany, where he monitored air traffic. In the air force Cash began to play and sing country songs with some friends in the barracks who called themselves the Landsberg Barbarians.

From this group, Cash was inspired to learn to play the guitar, so he bought a cheap German model for about $5 and a friend taught him chords. Soon, Cash began to play the songs of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, the Carter Family, Roy Acuff, and other country stars. He also began writing songs. After his discharge from the air force in the summer of 1954 Cash returned home, married Vivian Liberto, whom he had met in San Antonio during basic training, and moved to Memphis.

He obtained a job with Home Equipment Service as an appliance salesman and enrolled in the Keegan School of Broadcasting on the GI Bill to learn how to be a radio announcer. Cash was never a very good salesman but the owner, George Bates, liked him and asked what he really wanted to do. Cash replied he wanted to be a singer and Bates agreed to sponsor a fifteen- minute radio show on Saturday afternoons over KWEM in Memphis. The show lasted two months.

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