The turbulent life of Johnny Cash, highly acclaimed singer, songwriter, guitarist, actor and author, is well documented in song and the media. Although he was best remembered for country music, his songs crossed into rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, folk and gospel.
Born into a family of seven in Kingsland, Ark., in 1932, Cash began working in the cotton fields at age 5, singing along with his family. Taught guitar by his mother and a friend, he was playing and writing songs at age 12. His family's economic and personal struggles during the Great Depression inspired many of his songs.
Cash enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1950 and was assigned duty as a Morse Code operator intercepting Soviet Army transmissions at Landsberg, Germany, where he created his first band, the Landsberg Barbarians. While in Germany, he exchanged hundreds of love letters with Vivian Liberto, whom he had met earlier at a roller-skating rink in her native San Antonio. One month after his discharge, they were married at St Ann's Roman Catholic Church in her hometown and went on to have four daughters. Liberto later stated that Cash's drug and alcohol abuse, as well as constant touring, affairs with other women and his close relationship with June Carter led her to file for divorce in 1966.
Cash's rise in music, addiction to drugs, marital problems and conversion to Christianity are documented in his 1975 autobiography, "Man in Black," so named because of his regard for the poor and hungry. His book tells a compelling life story of a great talent dealing with accomplishments and failures, happiness and sorrow as he fought the demons of his life.
Sheriff Ralph Jones of Walker County, Ga., was a typical rural county law officer in Northwest Georgia. He was friendly to his constituents, tough on hardened criminals and sympathetic to the locals within his jurisdiction. He served the citizens of Walker County as its highest law enforcement officer from the mid-1960s to December 1984.
Jones was an avid fan of Johnny Cash, having followed his career for many years and owning every record the famous singer produced. He and his wife often watched Cash on television and heard him on radio. Jones was particularly fond of his gospel hymns.
The sheriff had never met the singer before October 1967, when one of his deputies arrested Cash for prowling, public intoxication and a variety of drug charges. One account had the singer banging on the door of a local resident after wandering around Walker County looking for Civil War relics. Cash allegedly attempted to bribe the arresting deputy, Bobby Edward, with a wad of $100 bills. The singer spent the night in the Walker County jail.
The first meeting of the sheriff and the country legend took place at the aging jail in Lafayette. In an exercise of law enforcement discretion rarely seen today, Sheriff Jones ordered the charges against Johnny Cash thrown out — after a face-to-face talk with the star in which he returned Cash's money and drugs. Jones advised him, "Do with your life whatever you want to. Just remember, you've got the free will to kill yourself or save your life," and he sent the singer on his way.
Johnny Cash credited Jones with turning his life around. Although from time to time, he returned to drugs — and entered rehab — he always gave credit to the rural Georgia sheriff for helping him fight his demons. On the national television show, "This Is Your Life," in 1971, Cash formally thanked Jones, who was a surprise guest on the show, for saving his life.
Cash had also shown his appreciation for Jones in 1970, when he performed in a Lafayette benefit concert, which attracted more than 12,000 people in a county of only 8,500 citizens.
The $75,000 (more than $450,000 today) raised at the concert helped pay off the debt of Lafayette High School's football stadium and improve the school's athletic facilities.
While hospitalized at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Cash died at age 71 in 2003, due to complications from diabetes, just four months after his wife, June Carter Cash, died. Many thought that his health worsened due to a broken heart with June gone.
Jerry Summers is an attorney with Summers, Rufolo and Rodgers. Frank "Mickey" Robbins, investment adviser with Patten and Patten, contributed to this article. For more visit chattahistorical assoc.org.