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The film opens in 1968, as an audience of inmates at Folsom State Prison cheer for Johnny Cash's band as he waits backstage near a table saw, reminding him of his early life.
In 1944, Johnny, then known as J.R., grows up the son of a sharecropper on a cotton farm in Dyess, Arkansas. He is known for his singing of hymns, while his brother Jack is training himself to become a pastor. While Jack is sawing wood for a neighbor with a table saw, J.R. goes fishing until his brother finishes. But Jack has an accident with the saw and dies of his injuries. Cash's strained relationship with his father Ray becomes much more difficult after Jack's death. In 1950, J.R. enlists in the United States Air Force as Johnny Cash, and is stationed in Germany. He purchases a guitar and in 1952, finds solace in writing songs, one of which he develops as "Folsom Prison Blues".
After his discharge, Cash returns to the United States and marries his girlfriend Vivian Liberto. The couple moves to Memphis, Tennessee, where Cash works as a door-to-door salesman to support his growing family. He walks past a recording studio, which inspires him to organize a band to play gospel music. Cash's band auditions for Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records. After they play "Folsom Prison Blues", the band receives a contract, and launch to stardom at the beginning of the rock and roll craze.
The band begins touring as Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. On tour he meets the singer June Carter, with whom he falls in love. Cash begins spending more time with June, who divorces her first husband Carl Smith. After his attempt to woo June fails, Cash starts abusing drugs and alcohol. After his behavior reaches a bottom during a performance with June, they separate.
Later, over Vivian's objections, Johnny persuades June to come out of semi-retirement and tour with him. The tour is a success, but backstage, Vivian becomes critical of June's influence. After one performance in Las Vegas, Cash and June sleep together. The next morning, she notices Cash taking pills and doubts her choices. At that evening's concert, Cash, upset by Carter's apparent rejection, behaves erratically and eventually passes out on stage. June disposes of Cash's drugs and begins to write "Ring of Fire", describing her feelings for Cash and her pain at watching him descend into addiction.
Returning to California, Cash travels to Mexico to purchase more drugs and is arrested. Cash's marriage to Vivian crumbles; the pair divorce and Cash moves to Nashville in 1966. Trying to reconcile with June, he buys a large house near a lake in Hendersonville. His parents and the extended Carter family arrive for Thanksgiving, at which time Ray dismisses his son's achievements and behavior. After the meal, June's mother encourages her daughter to help Cash. He goes into detox and wakes with June; she says they have been given a second chance. Though not married, the two begin spending most of their time with each other.
Cash discovers that most of his fan mail is from prisoners, who are impressed with his outlaw image. He proposes to Columbia Records that he record an album live inside Folsom Prison. Despite Columbia's doubts, Cash says that he will perform, and his label can use the tapes if they wish. At the Folsom Prison concert, Cash says that he has been sympathetic to prisoners, explaining that his arrest for drug possession helped him to relate to them. With this success, Cash embarks on a tour with June and his band. On the bus, he stops to talk with June and proposes to her, but she turns him down. At the next concert, June says she will only speak with him on stage. Cash later performs "Ring of Fire" on stage. After the song, Cash invites June to a duet and stops in the middle, saying he cannot sing "Jackson" any more unless June agrees to marry him. June accepts and they share a passionate embrace on stage.