Johnny Cash was born on February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas, to Carrie Cloveree (née Rivers) and Ray Cash. 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 he enlisted in the United States Air Force, he was not permitted to use initials as a first name, so he changed it to John R. Cash. In 1955, when signing with Sun Records, he started using the name 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 the opportunity to work land that they may later own. From the age of five, Cash worked in cotton fields with his family, singing with them as they worked. The Cash farm in Dyess experienced a flood, which led Cash 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. Consequently, Cash had sympathy for the poor and working class throughout his life.
On Saturday, May 13, 1944, Cash's older brother Jack, with whom he was close, was seriously injured in an accident at his job in a high school. He was pulled into an unguarded table saw while cutting oak into fence posts, and was almost cut in two. He died from his injuries a week later. Cash often spoke of the guilt he felt over this incident; according to Cash: The Autobiography, his father was away that morning, but Johnny, his mother, and even 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, but he insisted on working as 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.