Johnny Cash was a legendary figure not just in the world of country music, but the world of music in general. And he lived an extraordinary life full of complexities, contradictions, and grief. Though he passed away in 2003 his music still lives on, and his fans still love discovering new things about him. Here are 40 fascinating facts you may not have known about the Man in Black.
40. He didn’t actually write his biggest hit
Johnny Cash didn’t write “Ring of Fire” – his future wife June Carter did. Her sister Anita released the song a few months before Cash did, and the credited songwriters were the Carter sisters and singer Merle Kilgore. But it wasn’t a hit. So Cash swooped in, added the mariachi horns, and made it one of the most famous songs in American music.
39. The scar on his face was from a cyst
Cash’s facial scar only added to his mystique, but he didn’t get it in a fight. He got it via a facial cyst – though one story goes that the doctor who operated on him was drunk and botched the procedure. Reportedly some Cash impersonators tried to make their own scars using more traditional means.
38. Hate groups threatened him
In 1965 word got out that Cash’s then-wife, Vivian Liberto, was black. In actual fact she wasn’t, but that was still enough for racist hate groups to target the couple. In her 2008 memoir I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny Liberto remembered, “Johnny and I received death threats, and an already shameful situation was made infinitely worse.”
37. His parents didn’t actually name him Johnny
Johnny Cash’s parents couldn’t decide what to call him. His mother wanted “Rivers” after her maiden name, and his father wanted “Ray” after himself. In the end they settled just for the initials “J.R.” That sounds odd, but it was actually pretty common in that era. J.R. didn’t take the name “John” until he joined the Air Force.
36. His brother died horribly
Cash’s older brother Jack suffered a terrible accident at the age of 14. On May 13, 1944 he fell into a table saw while working at cutting lumber and died a week later. The younger Cash was devastated and never forgot the incident. When he himself was an old man, he said he looked forward to meeting Jack again in heaven.
35. He was friends with various Presidents
Cash apparently never once exercised his right to vote, but he was friends with Presidents from both political parties. He maintained relationships with George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter – Carter in fact being a distant relative of his beloved wife June. Yet he was said to never entirely trust any of them.
34. He was once sued for embezzlement
In the mid-1970s Cash fired his bandmate Marshal Grant after some money went missing, and Grant turned around and sued Cash for embezzlement. It turned out quite a lot of money had mysteriously disappeared, right at the same time Cash got back into heavy drug use. In the end everything was settled out of court, but Cash and Grant were never exactly friends again.
33. “Ring of Fire” might have a hidden meaning
The Carter sister and Merle Kilgore are credited for writing “Ring of Fire” but Vivian Liberto disputes that. In her autobiography she wrote, “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part.” Whatever the truth really is, the song has been used in reference to various private parts: Kilgore used to make certain jokes a lot.
32. He was arrested seven times
Johnny Cash truly lived a wild rock ‘n roll lifestyle for a while. He was arrested no less than seven times throughout his life, mostly for substance-related offenses. One of these arrests was for picking flowers – he drunkenly wandered into someone’s yard and began messing with their plants. He was arrested and put in a cell, and spent the night with a broken toe after kicking the cell door.
31. He might have tried to marry Johnny Horton’s widow
In 1960 Cash’s friend, successful musician Johnny Horton, died in a car accident. Cash rushed to comfort his widow, Billie Jean. And according to the writers of the 2019 book Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon, this led to “a whirlwind, madcap courtship culminating in mutual expression of love – and a marriage proposal from the already married Cash.” But Billie Jean turned him down.
30. He was a prolific writer
Cash had a side hustle: writing. While he was in the Air Force, he sent a piece to the military newspaper and it was published. So he continued on from there. In addition to of course writing many of his own songs, he wrote two autobiographies and the Christianity-themed novel Man in White.
29. He wrote a bad song on purpose
As the 1980s came around, Cash decided that his record label Columbia wasn’t serving him well. So he hatched a plan to write a song so hilariously terrible that Columbia would let him out of his contract. This was “Chicken in Black,” pretty much a straight-up parody of the whole Johnny Cash story. That’s certainly one way of doing things.
28. He windscreen-wiped his friend’s ashes off his car
In 1996 Cash’s friend Faron Young, a popular music artist whose health was in decline, committed suicide. Cash asked if he might be allowed to sprinkle some of Young’s ashes in his garden, but alas the ceremony went wrong. Some of the ashes went on Cash’s car instead, and he ended up windscreen-wiping his buddy’s earthly remains away.
27. He met June Carter while both of them were married
In 1956 singer Carl Smith – and his wife June Carter – met Cash. It was love at first sight, right in front of Smith, even though Cash was still the husband of Vivian. In 2000 Carter told Rolling Stone magazine, “It was not a convenient time for me to fall in love with him, and it was not a convenient time for him to fall in love with me.”
26. Tennessee’s mental health commissioner helped him get off drugs
In 2002 Cash chatted about his past with CNN’s Larry King. He revealed, “The commissioner of mental health for the state of Tennessee, he had befriended me. And he said, ‘I will help you save your life if you want to save it.’” The man gave Cash 32 days of counselling and finally convinced him to flush away his pills.
25. He once let a lot of baby chicks loose in a hotel
Hotel owners must have dreaded the arrival of Johnny Cash. Reportedly, one time he put cherry bombs in a hotel toilet and another time he stabbed an establishment’s reproduction Mona Lisa painting. Yet the oddest Johnny Cash hotel story regards him gathering up 500 baby chicks and letting them run wild around the building.
24. He smoked since he was a child
Today the image of a pre-teen smoking would be quite shocking, but not in the era Cash grew up in. He was reportedly only 12 years old when he took up the habit, and it would stay with him the rest of his life. Luckily, however, it didn’t seem to affect his amazing singing voice.
23. “The Man Comes Around” was inspired by a weird dream
In his 2002 interview with Larry King Cash revealed the origins of “The Man Comes Around.” He said, “I got the idea from a dream that I had – I dreamed I saw Queen Elizabeth. I dreamed I went in to Buckingham Palace, and there she sat on the floor. And she looked up at me and said, ‘Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.’”
22. His wife wasn’t happy about his married behavior
In the parts of her autobiography that dealt with her marriage to Cash, Vivian Liberto wrote that, “Two things were causing trouble: [June Carter] and drugs. But why confuse the issue?” She also slammed Carter as a “hypocrite” who “claimed to be a God-fearing Christian woman, but I didn’t believe it.” When she finally divorced Cash, she labelled drug abuse and extramarital affairs as the cause.
21. He kept drugs in his guitar case
Some 1965-era cops might have gotten a surprise, or maybe not, when they searched Cash’s guitar case in El Paso that year. There were drugs in there, and a lot of them – 668 dexadrin and 475 Equanil according to the charges. Cash pleaded guilty and was given a fine plus a 30-day suspended sentence.
20. His relationship with his father wasn’t what people think
In the 2005 Cash biopic Walk the Line, Cash’s relationship with his father is shown as an abusive one. But his own son says that isn’t true. In 2015 John Carter Cash told Rolling Stone magazine, “My father was always respectful to my grandfather. I really wanted that to be known because I never saw him disrespect my grandfather, and I never saw them have a cross word.”
19. He worked in cotton fields as a child
Cash went to work on the family farm when he was still very young. The Cashes were poor, and everyone had to pull together. The young J.R. would help in the cotton fields, sometimes even eating the cotton buds. Sometimes the precious fields would flood, which later inspired Cash’s song “Five Feet High and Rising.”
18. He turned to evangelical Christianity
As Cash got older, he began to fear for his immortal soul. Though he didn’t think he could ever stop taking drugs, he turned to Christianity to help him. He teamed up with evangelist Billy Graham and began preaching and performing at evangelical events. Reportedly Graham has a voice cameo in Cash’s “The Preacher Said, ‘Jesus Said.’”
17. He discovered Elvis had been writing to his wife
Elvis apparently held quite the flame for June Carter, even though she was married to his buddy Johnny Cash. Many years after Elvis died, Cash found in an attic a stash of love letters from the King to Carter, and immediately had them destroyed. However, in his 1991 autobiography he did say, “Elvis was my friend, flesh and blood in real life.”
16. It was rumored he was a former prisoner
Thanks in part to his famous 1968 concert at Folsom Prison and the prison shows which lead on from that, rumors spread that Cash himself was a former convict. This wasn’t true, but it was true that Cash had been in trouble with the law a lot, and he had such a hardened image that the untruth stuck.
15. His first wife turned down his money
Vivian Liberto never wanted to divorce Cash, despite everything. She badly wanted him to stay. Eventually, Cash offered her a huge sum of money – half a million dollars – to split from him. She refused. Her Catholic faith figured into that decision, but she couldn’t hold on to the failed marriage forever. She divorced Cash in 1966.
14. He had a serious neurodegenerative disease
In his elder years Cash began suffering tremors and blackouts, as well as major bouts of pneumonia. His doctors didn’t know what he had. He was diagnosed first with Parkinson’s Disease, then Shy-Drager Syndrome, then finally autonomic neuropathy, a condition associated with diabetes. Sadly, it was complications of diabetes which eventually killed him.
12. He was an ordained minister
Cash was incredibly religious. Although he went back and forth about what bits of the Bible he believed, he was absolutely God-fearing, and during the 1970s he began studying theology with the aim of becoming a minister. He achieved this quite easily and was baptized in the Jordan River. Later on he was the minister at his own daughter’s wedding.
11. He was once attacked by an ostrich
Cash happened to own a recording studio which had an exotic animal park attached – not a good idea, as he soon discovered. An African ostrich by the name of Waldo lived at the park, and one day it went for Cash. He was left with five broken ribs, internal bleeding, and very possibly a new respect for ostriches.
10. He dug his own brother’s grave
Cash went through more horrible things in his childhood than anyone should have to. After the brutal death of his older brother, Cash headed out to the graveyard and started helping the men there dig. When it was time for the actual funeral service, he was dirty and his foot was sore from treading on a nail. He was only 12.
9. A cellmate refused to believe his identity
During one of Cash’s numerous run-ins with the police, he was thrown into a Nevada holding cell. His cellmate happened to be an intimidating lumberjack who didn’t believe for one moment that this man was the real Johnny Cash. Cash sang his most famous songs to him all night, but to no avail.
8. He fell into a coma and heard voices
During his 2002 Larry King interview, Cash talked about how pneumonia had put him in a coma and what that had been like. He said, “I remember voices in the room. I remember things they were saying… And after a while, you know, the conversation inevitably has to come around to Well, if he dies, this or that, you know?… And I’m lying there hearing that.”
7. He proposed to June on stage
Not all of the biopic Walk the Line was accurate, but one thing that seemed to have been invented for the movie actually did take place. After being turned down by June Carter multiple times, Cash proposed to her live on stage in front of 7000 people in Ontario. This time she said yes.
6. There’s a spider named after him
Several years after Cash passed a new species of tarantula was discovered near Folsom Prison, the building that he once played at and gave a place in music history to. So there was only one thing scientists could call the new spider: Aphonopelma johnnycashi. And just like Cash it too “wears” black as it gets older.
5. He didn’t think “I Walk the Line” was good
When Cash spoke to Larry King in 2002, he revealed he hadn’t liked “I Walk the Line” at first. He said, “It was in my head too long, I just didn’t think it was that good of a song. I just didn’t think anyone would like it. I didn’t like the arraignment. I didn’t like the sound I had on the record.” But of course it was a massive hit.
4. His last public performance was very touching
Cash’s final public performance was on July 5, 2003. It was just a couple of months after June Carter passed away. He gave a speech before singing “Ring of Fire” and sadly said, “We connect somewhere between here and heaven, she came down for a short visit, I guess, from heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has.”
3. He accidentally killed some endangered birds
In many ways Cash didn’t seem to have an awful lot of luck with birds. In 1965, a time when Cash was still addicted to drugs, he went on a fishing trip and accidentally started a forest fire, although how exactly he did it is unknown. Unfortunately, this resulted in the deaths of 49 endangered condors. The federal government sued him, much to his displeasure.
2. He wore black for a reason
Why was Cash “The Man in Black?” Well, the reason is much more simple than you might think. Larry King put that question to him in 2002 and he answered, “I wear black because I’m comfortable in it. But then in the summertime when it’s hot I’m comfortable in light blue.” And black also helped him hide any marks on his clothes.
1. He died not long after his wife did
The love story of Cash and Carter had a bittersweet ending. She passed away in May 2003, and he died just a few months later in September. Their son John Carter Cash told Reuters in 2007, “My parents’ love for each other lasted throughout their whole life. They didn’t give up …They accepted each other totally unconditionally.”