I Walk the Line: Johnny Cash’s First Wife


There’s not a soul alive who hasn’t heard of Johnny Cash. The Man in Black is one of the most popular country singers to date and his past, filled with drugs and rumors, is one that fascinates many to this day. Most people tend to focus on his marriage to June Carter, but there was another one long before her.

I Walk the Line: Johnny Cash’s First Wife

Vivian Liberto Distin is a figure often ignored in Cash’s past, but she was in fact Johnny Cash’s first wife, long before June Carter came along. Their marriage lasted thirteen years and they had four daughters together before Vivian filed for a divorce following Johnny’s infidelity. Although their marriage did not end on good terms, those close to Vivian say that she never once badmouthed Johnny (or June for that matter) and that she loved him until the day she died. In 2003, after the death of June Carter, Vivian decided to write an auto biography telling her side of the story. This is a much needed perspective since most versions of the Vivian-Johnny-June tale do not paint Vivian in a flattering light. Now we finally have her side of the story. It is one that fills the reader with melancholy.

It was on the 18th of July 1951 that Johnny Cash met his first wife. They were at a roller-skating rink in San Antonio. Vivian writes that while Johnny wasn’t very skilled at skating, the way he sang along to the music charmed her.

Soon after their romance started, Johnny was sent to Germany by the Airforce. The pair exchanged many love letters while he was gone.

While most of the letters were extremely sweet and filled with love, they also contained foreshadowing for what would follow. There were many times where he wrote of substance abuse and even being unfaithful. He always promised that he would never repeat the mistake, but he did.

When Jonny returned from Germany in July, 1954, the pair were immediately in love, even more so than before. They married August 7, 1954 and Vivian became Johnny Cash’s first wife.

Soon after, while Vivian was pregnant with their first child, Johnny was signed to Sun Records.

Vivian must have felt the paranoia of having a husband as successful as Johnny, as she recalls that she often asked him whether or not he was ever tempted by all the women his fame drew. He assured her that there would no others, actually stating “I walk the line for you”.

This later became the inspiration for a song. Vivian writes that Johnny had her write down the lyrics for “I Walk the Line” as they were driving. The song reached number one on the charts in 1956, the same year their second daughter was born. She was named Kathy.

Johnny’s popularity only grew by the day and soon he acquired a new manager, Stu Carnall. Carnall persuaded Johnny to move to California in order to focus more on his career. Vivian, though not too happy with the decision, went along to keep Johnny happy.

They moved to Encino in 1958, a short month after their third daughter Cindy was born. This move would go on to be the beginning of the end for Johnny and Vivian.

Johnny’s substance abuse issues came to the forefront and he was an unrelenting alcoholic, as well as a drug addict. This proved to be a great source of worry for Johnny Cash’s first wife and his first marriage began to crumble. It was also around this time that Johnny and Vivian met June Carter.

They moved again in 1961, this time to Casitas Springs. Vivian thought this would be the new start they needed for Johnny to stop his immoral behavior and for them to pull their life back together, but unfortunately it did not work out that way.

Vivian gives two reasons for the failure of her marriage. Substance abuse and, more importantly, June Carter.

Vivian met June Carter in 1958 and was immediately suspicious of her, claiming that she thought June was a danger to her family. When signs of Johnny’s infidelity became apparent, Vivian tried to deny it, but soon it was too blatant to be denied any longer.

Vivian was the one who filed for divorce, but she is filled with regret about not fighting harder to save her marriage. Vivian claims that June deliberately set out to destroy Vivian and Johnny’s relationship and that June was largely responsible for Johnny’s drug problem. Whether or not this is true is unknown, but it does fit in well with what happened.

Johnny never apologized for his infidelity and this is something that hurt Vivian even more than the infidelity itself.

Both Johnny and June died in 2003, and Vivian passed away in 2005.