New biography reveals how Johnny Cash went from pill-popping defiant outlaw to ordained minister

He was a down-to-earth, doting father to his family, but on the road, Johnny Cash was a philandering, hard-driving, pill-popping defiant outlaw – a new biography has revealed.

The singer, known as the Man in Black, reached number one in the world in country music in the 60s and crossed over to pop charts with a roller coaster career – all while consuming copious amounts of drugs and alcohol until his death in 2003.  

His drug binges amplified talking demons in his head, inspired drug-addled destructive tantrums, car accidents, and two suicide attempts.

When he developed twitches and tremors, he threw barbiturates into the mix to calm down and then washed it all down with beer, vodka and wine.

But in the public eye, he talked about carrying a bible in his briefcase and initially played the righteous family man who prayed at home. 

‘Cash had two personas – the down to earth, doting family man at home and the defiant outlaw on the road – hard-driving, pill-popping – a full-tilt party-time outlaw’, writes Greg Laurie with Marshall Terrill in, Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon, published by Salem Books. 

Johnny Cash, who became widely known as the 'Man in Black', reached number one in the world in country music in the 60s and crossed over to pop charts with a roller coaster career before his death in 2003

Johnny Cash, who became widely known as the 'Man in Black', reached number one in the world in country music in the 60s and crossed over to pop charts with a roller coaster career before his death in 2003

Johnny Cash, who became widely known as the ‘Man in Black’, reached number one in the world in country music in the 60s and crossed over to pop charts with a roller coaster career before his death in 2003 

Cash developed an 'outlaw' image, having been arrested several times for misdemeanors in the 1960s. Above he is pictured in his booking photo in October 1965

Cash developed an 'outlaw' image, having been arrested several times for misdemeanors in the 1960s. Above he is pictured in his booking photo in October 1965

Cash developed an ‘outlaw’ image, having been arrested several times for misdemeanors in the 1960s. Above he is pictured in his booking photo in October 1965

The doting family man was a short-lived fantasy after drugs took over Cash’s life and his wife was no longer enough to satisfy him.

Cash was born in 1932 and raised in a dirt-poor, devout Christian family in cotton-picking rural Arkansas during the Great Depression.

Cash's transition from dirt-poor southerner, to iconic country music star is detailed in new biography, Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon

Cash's transition from dirt-poor southerner, to iconic country music star is detailed in new biography, Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon

Cash’s transition from dirt-poor southerner, to iconic country music star is detailed in new biography, Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon

Growing up, ‘he was torn between his spiritual life and his love of everything the secular, material world had to offer – fame, money, and their open invitations to sin’, according to the authors. 

He met 17-year-old Vivian Liberto in San Antonio, Texas while serving in the Air Force in the early 50s and married her four years later when he left the service. 

As he rose to stardom, Vivian was left to raise their four daughters while Cash popped his ‘God-sent’ pills that made him feel invincible and drank his way across the country performing and sleeping with other women. 

Introduced to amphetamines in the ’50s to fight off road fatigue, it became a staggering 100-pills-a-day habit.  

At the time, doctors willingly prescribed 100 pills for $10, but in Mexico they were available by the bagful. 

Cash would make many trips south of the border to pick up more amphetamines, no prescription needed.  

He would get his first taste of life on the road and introduction to ‘snuff queens’, later called, groupies, on Elvis’s Louisiana Hayrides in the 50s.

Thanks to those hayrides and a guest appearance with the King, he landed his own TV appearances, signed record contracts – and performed at the Grand Ole’ Opry, in Nashville, where he met second wife June Carter. 

The one-time loving family man had fallen in love with wealth and fame – flying high on uppers.   

By 1958, he had a newly signed record contract with Columbia Records and it was goodbye to Sun Records and Memphis, and hello to Studio City, LA.

Johnny Cash's parents, Carrie and Ray

Johnny Cash's parents, Carrie and Ray

Johnny and his brother Jack

Johnny and his brother Jack

Cash was born in 1932 to parents Carrie and Ray Cash (left) in rural Arkansas. He is pictured right with his older brother Jack, who died in an accident in 1944 

He was raised in a dirt-poor, devout Christian family in cotton-picking rural Arkansas during the Great Depression (pictured far right)

He was raised in a dirt-poor, devout Christian family in cotton-picking rural Arkansas during the Great Depression (pictured far right)

He was raised in a dirt-poor, devout Christian family in cotton-picking rural Arkansas during the Great Depression (pictured far right) 

With success now playing to larger crowds and graduating from nightclubs to bigger venues and adding a new drummer, W.S. Fluke Holland who had recorded with Elvis, Cash saw bigger paydays on the horizon.

He began living lavishly, shelling out $75,000 in 1960 for Johnny Carson’s former four-bedroom ranch, complete with a swimming pool and separate maid’s quarters.

Cross-country spending sprees followed to fill the closets and jewelry cases and the women became just as accessible as the material goods.  

In November that year, his close friend, singer Johnny Horton was killed in a car crash.  

Cash immediately rushed to Shreveport, Louisiana to help Horton’s wife, Billie Jean with funeral arrangements.

He had promised his friend he would look after Billie Jean if anything happened to him. 

He took Billie Jean to New York for three weeks of distraction — shopping for clothes, seeing Broadway shows, checking out night clubs.

From there, it was ‘a whirlwind, madcap courtship culminating in mutual expression of love — and a marriage proposal from the already married Cash,’ write the authors.

But Billie Jean knew he was an addict and that pills would destroy him. She went in pursuit of her own career.

Johnny met his first wife Vivian Liberto (pictured together in 1957) when he was just 17 and the two married four years later

Johnny met his first wife Vivian Liberto (pictured together in 1957) when he was just 17 and the two married four years later

Johnny met his first wife Vivian Liberto (pictured together in 1957) when he was just 17 and the two married four years later  

A doting father at first, Cash would see less and less of his wife and daughters as his career took off. Above he is pictured with Vivian, and  girls, Rosanne and Kathy

A doting father at first, Cash would see less and less of his wife and daughters as his career took off. Above he is pictured with Vivian, and  girls, Rosanne and Kathy

A doting father at first, Cash would see less and less of his wife and daughters as his career took off. Above he is pictured with Vivian, and  girls, Rosanne and Kathy 

He would eventually fall in love with June Carter (pictured together in 1968) while still married to Vivian. The pair married in in 1968

He would eventually fall in love with June Carter (pictured together in 1968) while still married to Vivian. The pair married in in 1968

He would eventually fall in love with June Carter (pictured together in 1968) while still married to Vivian. The pair married in in 1968

Waiting in the wings, however, was June Carter, who he first met at the Opry in 1956.  

‘She was great. She was gorgeous. She was a star,’ Cash said. He also blurted out to her that they would be married some day. 

June, her sisters and mother, Maybelle Carter were country music royalty and joined Cash on tour in January 1962.

‘Within months, they were involved in a full-blown love affair,’ according to the authors, and any efforts to be discreet and hide it from Vivian failed.

In fact, he didn’t go home to see his wife or his girls for a whole year.

June even once told Cash’s wife: ‘He will be mine,’ and she thrust her diamond wedding ring in her face saying: ‘With every husband, my diamond gets bigger,’ according to the book. 

By 1963, Cash was giving half of his royalties to June as well as buying her expensive jewelry, clothes, electronics and Vivian had all the receipts.

June knew how to put on the charm – be a mother hen, iron his clothes, nag him to eat right, sleep more.

She tried to talk him out of killing himself when she caught him with a handful of Dexamyl pills –a combination of amphetamine and barbiturates. 

Within the next year, their love affair was no longer a secret nor was Cash’s addiction that was out of control.

June told him she couldn’t take the drugs anymore and she was going to leave him, but their separation didn’t last very long.  

By 1958, he had a newly signed record contract with Columbia Records and it was goodbye to Sun Records and Memphis, and hello to Studio City, LA. He is pictured signing his contract with Clive Davis

By 1958, he had a newly signed record contract with Columbia Records and it was goodbye to Sun Records and Memphis, and hello to Studio City, LA. He is pictured signing his contract with Clive Davis

By 1958, he had a newly signed record contract with Columbia Records and it was goodbye to Sun Records and Memphis, and hello to Studio City, LA. He is pictured signing his contract with Clive Davis

Cash, pictured far right, began to rub elbows with Elvis (pictured sitting) which paved his way to stardom

Cash, pictured far right, began to rub elbows with Elvis (pictured sitting) which paved his way to stardom

Cash, pictured far right, began to rub elbows with Elvis (pictured sitting) which paved his way to stardom 

Cash eventually offered Vivian a half-million dollars for a divorce which she refused due to her Catholic faith.  

She wanted to save the marriage and go on the road with her husband, but Cash didn’t even take her calls.

In a desperate attempt, she even called June and told her to leave her husband alone. June hung up on her.

Vivian finally filed for divorce in the summer of 1966 and Johnny and June tied the knot two years later. 

But a year into that marriage, Cash was sleeping with June’s sister, Anita while June was pregnant with their son.

June and Johnny loved spending money together and traveled the world shopping and paying for a large contingency of friends to accompany them.

Eventually, the emotional stress of Cash’s drug consumption would get to her.

She hired a psychiatrist to try to break her husband’s addiction ‘now up to 25 ten-milligram uppers at a clip, three and four times a day, and at least twenty tranquilizers plus Equanil when he was coming down or wanted to sleep.’

Cash would go back to his faithful roots in adulthood after making the decision to live his life 'for the lord.' He studied for his degree in ministry and completed the course workin 1977

Cash would go back to his faithful roots in adulthood after making the decision to live his life 'for the lord.' He studied for his degree in ministry and completed the course workin 1977

Cash would go back to his faithful roots in adulthood after making the decision to live his life ‘for the lord.’ He studied for his degree in ministry and completed the course workin 1977

Cash, pictured with his mom Carrie, died in 2003

Cash, pictured with his mom Carrie, died in 2003

Cash, pictured with his mom Carrie, died in 2003 

She checked into the Mayo Clinic for her own anxiety addictions that left her in a stupor and then flew to London to file for divorce.

June didn’t go through with it and stuck with Cash as their health declined.

Cash checked into Betty Ford Center in 1983 where he had to clean toilets, vacuum floors and make beds as part of addiction therapy.

There he met Elizabeth Taylor when she was trying to clean up and they struck up a friendship on learning they were born a day apart and exchanged birthday cards for years. 

By 1977, Cash knew he had escaped death one too many times and turned to a life of faith. 

‘I’ve lived my life for the devil up until now and from here on, I’m going to live it for the Lord,’ he said. 

He studied for his degree in ministry and completed the coursework that year.

He was ordained as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the early 1980s and baptized in the Jordan River.

But Cash never wanted his ordination to be made public.  

Despite his newfound spirituality, drugs continued to rule his life and he would later confess: ‘I didn’t ever kick the drug habit and I don’t think I ever will. There’ll always be that craving here for it. 

‘That comes by every day and then passes’.  

 

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