Johnny Cash’s Devastating Childhood Loss Morphed Him From Gregarious to Introspective

Johnny Cash made country music bigger and better than it was before him. Few stars have the kind of generational reach that came easy to Johnny Cash. He was emblematic of his time, yet he is timeless. H

e’s also able to cross genres without much difficulty, something he proved with one of his last songs, a cover of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails that may even top the original. The emotion in Johnny Cash’s voice is palpable.

Considering how well he can sing such a sad song, it won’t surprise his fans to learn that he suffered some serious tragedies in his lifetime, including one at a very young age. 

Johnny Cash was born in hard times 

UNSPECIFIED – OCTOBER 01: (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of Johnny CASH; posed (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

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It wasn’t just the Johnny Cash family that was down on their luck in 1932, when their son J. R., who would later be known as Johnny, was born. The entire country was in the throes of the Great Depression.

It was a difficult time for families in general, and the Cash family was no exception. Johnny Cash’s father was able to get work as part of a government program, but it meant moving from their hometown when Cash was young. 

According to Biography.com, Johnny Cash’s older brother, Jack Cash, was helping support the family at a young age. Jack Cash was two years older than Johnny Cash, and the younger boy looked up to him.

Despite the fact that Jack Cash had to work in manual labor, he had other plans for his future. Even as a child, he was deeply religious. Family speculated he may have grown up to become a preacher if his life hadn’t ended tragically at the age of 14. 

Johnny Cash helped dig his brother Jack’s grave 

Johnny Cash was just 12 when his brother was involved in a terrible accident. He was working cutting wood when he was pulled into a table saw. The saw cut through the middle of his body but didn’t kill him. He did, however, have to drag himself across the dirty shop floor for help, which may have led to an infection. He died a week later, and family members say the death totally changed Johnny Cash.

Johnny Cash had been a fun-loving kid up until the accident, but the tragedy shut that part of him down. After losing his brother, Johnny Cash would become more introspective. Even though he was only 12, he threw himself into art as a coping mechanism, writing songs, stories, and sketches as a way to handle his grief. 

The young Johnny Cash even helped dig his brother’s grave. At just 12 years old, he woke up early the day of the funeral and assisted the graveyard workers in making Jack Cash’s final resting place, according to his sister, Joanne Cash. 

Jack was Johnny Cash’s savior 

Although Johnny Cash wasn’t as big into religion as his older brother, some of Jack Cash’s spirituality rubbed off on Johnny Cash. After the accident, the elder Cash son reportedly told family members he was seeing angels.

But his religious visions didn’t turn Johnny Cash toward Christianity per se. Instead, it inspired him to see his brother as his savior and to dedicate his life to living the way his brother would have. While some people may ask “What would Jesus do?,” Johnny Cash would ask himself “What would Jack do?” instead. 

Partly thanks to Jack Cash’s influence, religion was a big part of Johnny Cash’s music and life. He even wrote a novel about the apostle Paul in the 1980s, and became an ordained minister in the 1970s, after drug abuse nearly ended his career and his life. He would never preach to a congregation, but Johnny Cash must have had his brother in mind when he fulfilled Jack Cash’s dream of becoming a Minister.