Johnny Cash was born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, to Ray Cash and Carrie Cloveree (née Rivers). He was the fourth of seven children, who were in birth order: Roy, Margaret Louise, Jack, J. R., Reba, Joanne, and Tommy (who also became a successful country artist). He was primarily of English and Scottish descent. As an adult he traced his surname to 11th-century Fife, after meeting with the then-laird of Falkland, Major Michael Crichton-Stuart. Cash Loch and other locations in Fife bear the name of his family.
At birth, Cash was named J. R. Cash. When Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force, he was not permitted to use initials as a first name, so he changed his name to John R. Cash. In 1955, when signing with Sun Records, he started going by Johnny Cash.
In March 1935, when Cash was three years old, the family settled in Dyess, Arkansas, a New Deal colony established to give poor families a chance to work land that they had a chance to own as a result. J.R. started working in cotton fields at the age of five, singing along with his family while working. The family farm was flooded on at least two occasions, which led him later to write the song "Five Feet High and Rising". His family's economic and personal struggles during the Great Depression inspired many of his songs, especially those about other people facing similar difficulties. He had sympathy for the poor and working class.
Cash was very close to his older brother, Jack. In May 1944, Jack was pulled into an unguarded table saw at his high school and was almost cut in two. He suffered for more than a week before dying on May 20, 1944, at the age of 15. Cash often spoke of the horrible guilt he felt over this incident. According to Cash: The Autobiography, his father was away that morning, but Johnny and his mother, and Jack himself, all had premonitions or a sense of foreboding about that day. His mother urged Jack to skip work and go fishing with his brother. Jack insisted on working since the family needed the money. On his deathbed, Jack said he had visions of Heaven and angels. Decades later, Cash spoke of looking forward to meeting his brother in Heaven.
Cash's early memories were dominated by gospel music and radio. Taught guitar by his mother and a childhood friend, Cash began playing and writing songs at the age of 12. When young, Cash had a high-tenor voice, before becoming a bass-baritone after his voice changed. In high school, he sang on a local radio station. Decades later, he released an album of traditional gospel songs, called My Mother's Hymn Book. He was also significantly influenced by traditional Irish music, which he heard performed weekly by Dennis Day on the Jack Benny radio program.