Cash, known as "The Man in Black," died at 2 a.m. in Baptist Hospital of complications from diabetes that resulted in respiratory failure, said his manager, Lou Robin. The funeral service will be private, but a public memorial is being planned and the date will be announced later.
In his songs, Cash crafted a persona as a dignified, resilient voice for the common man — but there was always a dark edge.
One of the most haunting couplets in popular music comes from "Folsom Prison Blues," which went to No. 4 on the country charts in 1956: "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die."
Forty-seven years later, Cash's arresting video for "Hurt" was nominated for six MTV Video Music Awards, winning one.
His deeply lined face fit well with his voice, which was limited in range but used to great effect to sing about prisoners, heartaches and tales of everyday life.
As CBS News' Dan Rather reports, contrary to myth, Cash never spent time in prison except for a few nights in drunk tanks. Yet two of his most popular albums were recorded live in prisons.
In a CBS 60 Minutes interview last year, Cash said this is the memorial he'd write for himself.
"I'd like to be remembered as a man faithful to his music, to his fans and to his family,'' Cash said.
As news of his death spread, other musicians praised Cash for his independent, rebellious streak that made him a powerful influence in country, rock, folk and gospel music.
"His influence spread over many generations," said Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. "I loved him as singer and a writer. I remember years ago a big part of our repertoire was two of my favorite Johnny Cash songs, 'I Walk The Line' and 'Ballad Of A Teenage Queen."'
Marty Stuart, who was once in Cash's band and married to his daughter Cindy, said Cash "answered to no one but himself, what he heard in his own heart and own mind and own soul. He was never dictated to by a trend or convention or by corporate powers that be. He did it his way."
"Johnny Cash was a giant," Rolling Stone magazine contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis told CBS Radio News. "Johnny Cash was in there at the beginning with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Making a record like 'I Walk The Line' really helped define the early days of rock 'n roll."
Cash had been released from the hospital Tuesday after a two-week stay for treatment of an unspecified stomach ailment. The illness caused him to miss last month's MTV awards, where his "Hurt" — a cover of Trent Reznor's hard rock song with Nine Inch Nails — won for cinematography.
"To hear that Johnny was interested in doing my song was a defining moment in my life's work," Reznor said Friday. "To hear the result really reminded me how beautiful, touching and powerful music can be. The world has truly lost one of the greats."
He had battled a disease of the nervous system, autonomic neuropathy, and pneumonia in recent years. His second wife, singer June Carter Cash, who co-wrote Cash's hit "Ring of Fire," died in May.
Singer Dolly Parton said, "Johnny Cash has only passed into the greater light. He will never, ever die. He will only become more important in this industry as time goes by."
Singer Kenny Chesney said Cash was one of the first artists whose music was universal.
"Whether anybody knows it or not, they were directly or indirectly influenced by Johnny Cash," he said. "Rock 'n' roll, country, gospel, Johnny's music crossed any boundary that was put up in front of him."
Cash wrote much of his own material and was among the first to record the songs of Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson.
"One Piece at a Time" was about an assembly line worker who built a car out of parts stolen from his factory. "A Boy Named Sue," a Shel Silverstein song he took to No. 1 in 1969, was a comical story of a father who gives his son a girl's name to make him tough.
Cash said in his self-titled 1997 autobiography that he tried to speak for "voices that were ignored or even suppressed in the entertainment media, not to mention the political and educational establishments."
His career spanned generations, with each finding something of value in his simple records, many of which used his trademark rockabilly rhythm.
Cash was a peer of Elvis Presley when he began recording in Memphis in the 1950s, and he scored hits like "Cry! Cry! Cry!" during that era. He had a longtime friendship and recorded with Dylan, who has cited Cash as a major influence.
Cash won 11 Grammy Awards — most recently in 2003, when "Give My Love To Rose" earned him honors as best male country vocal performance — and numerous Country Music Association awards. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980 and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
June Carter Cash, who partnered with him in hits such as "Jackson," and daughter Rosanne Cash also were successful singers.
The late 1960s and '70s were Cash's peak commercial years, and he was host of his own ABC variety show from 1969-71. In later years, he was part of the Highwayman supergroup with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kristofferson.
In the 1990s, Cash found a new artistic life recording with rock-rap producer Rick Rubin on the label American Recordings. He was back on the charts in 2002 with the album "American IV: The Man Comes Around."
He also wrote books, including two autobiographies, and acted in films and television shows.
In his 1971 hit "Man in Black," Cash said his black clothing symbolized the world's downtrodden people. Cash had been "The Man in Black" since he joined the Grand Ole Opry at age 25.
"Everybody was wearing rhinestones, all those sparkle clothes and cowboy boots," he said in 1986. "I decided to wear a black shirt and pants and see if I could get by with it. I did and I've worn black clothes ever since."
John R. Cash was born Feb. 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Ark., one of seven children. When he was 12, his 14-year-old brother and hero, Jack, died after an accident while sawing oak trees into fence posts. The tragedy had a lasting impact on Cash, and he later pointed to it as a possible reason his music was frequently melancholy.
He worked as a custodian and enlisted in the Air Force, learning guitar while stationed in Germany, before launching his music career in Memphis after his 1954 discharge.
Because of Cash's frequent performances in prisons and his rowdy lifestyle early in his career, many people wrongly thought he had served prison time. He never did, though he battled addiction to pills on and off and received a suspended jail sentence in 1965 on a misdemeanor narcotics charge in Texas.
He blamed fame for his vulnerability to drug addiction.
"When I was a kid, I always knew I'd sing on the radio someday. I never thought about fame until it started happening to me," he said in 1988. "Then it was hard to handle. That's why I turned to pills."
He credited June Carter Cash, whom he married in 1968, with helping him stay off drugs, though he had several relapses over the years and was treated at the Betty Ford Center in California in 1984. Together, June Carter and Cash had one child, John Carter Cash. He is a musician and producer.
In March 1998, after Cash's 1998 Grammy for best country album for "Unchained," he made headlines when his California-based record company took out an ad in the music trade magazine Billboard. The ad showed a much younger Cash Cash flipping his middle finger, sarcastically illustrating his thanks to country radio stations and "the country music establishment in Nashville," which he felt had unfairly cast him aside.
Singer Rosanne Cash is Johnny Cash's daughter from his first marriage, to Vivian Liberto. Their other three children were Kathleen, Cindy and Tara. They divorced in 1966.
Cash lived in Hendersonville, Tenn., just outside of Nashville. He also had a home in Jamaica.