By this time Cash had joined Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, two mechanics who worked at a Chevrolet dealer, and they began practicing at Cash’s home. John Cash had a burning ambition to hear himself singing on the radio and was aware of Sun Records in Memphis, which was owned by Sam Phillips.
Cash dropped by Sun Records several times in hopes of meeting Phillips, but each time the owner was either out of the office or unavailable. Finally, Cash met Phillips and asked for an audition. Phillips invited him in and Cash sang a number of songs. Phillips may have recorded two songs with just Cash and his guitar, “Wide Open Road” and “You’re My Baby” (sometimes known as “Little Woolly Booger”) at this meeting.
Later, Cash came back with Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant and they auditioned. At this point the group viewed itself as a gospel group and Cash wanted to do gospel material. But Phillips was reluctant to record gospel because Sun couldn’t sell it; the future for the record company was in what became known as rockabilly.
Cash quickly realized this and during this audition, probably in early 1955, Sam Phillips recorded the group doing “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hey Porter,” “Wide Open Road,” “Two Timin’ Woman,” “Port of Lonely Hearts,” and “My Treasure,” all of which Cash had written, and “Goodnight Irene,” which had been a big hit in 1950 for the Weavers.
In February Cash, Grant and Perkins went back into the studio and recorded “Wide Open Road,” “Cry, Cry, Cry” (which Cash had written since the last session), and “Hey Porter.” The last two were the two sides of his first single release from Sun. “Cry, Cry, Cry” entered the Billboard country chart on November 26 and reached number 14. Cash began performing in and around Memphis and recorded more songs for Sun.
His second single for Sun, “Folsom Prison Blues,” but it was his third single, “I Walk the Line,” that catapulted him to stardom. The song was recorded on April 2, 1956, and released in May. It entered the Billboard charts the following month, moved to number one and stayed on the charts for 43 weeks, selling well over a million singles.
In 1958 Cash left Sun and began recording for Columbia Records. Johnny Cash’s first session for Columbia was on July 24, 1958, and his second was two weeks later, on August 8. On his third session, August 13, he recorded “Lead Me Father,” “I Still Miss Someone,” “One More Ride,” “Pickin’ Time,” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” The last two songs are interesting because on “Pickin’ Time” Cash wrote about his childhood and life back on the farm. On “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” Cash wrote a western movie.
The whole country was crazy about TV westerns from the mid–1950s to the early 1960s and Johnny Cash was certainly part of this. Television westerns began to blossom in 1955 when Gunsmoke and Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp were introduced; they joined other westerns The Lone Ranger, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Adventures of Rin Tin Tin and Gene Autry—on regular network programming.
In 1956 Broken Arrow, Adventures of Jim Bowie, My Friend Flicka, and Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre were added. The top western shows during the 1956–57 season were Gunsmoke, which finished at seven, and Adventures of Wyatt Earp, which finished at 18 in the overall TV ratings. The beginning of the heyday for the network television westerns in prime time was 1957–58.
During this season the overall TV ratings showed Gunsmoke at number one, Tales of Wells Fargo at three, Have Gun, Will Travel at four, Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp at six, The Restless Gun at eight; Cheyenne at 12, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre at 21; and Wagon Train and Sugarfoot tied at number 23.
Clearly, the western began to dominate TV during the 1957–58 season. The success of television westerns continued during the 1958 season when, in the overall ratings, Gunsmoke was number one, Wagon Train was two; Have Gun, Will Travel was three;