Johnny Cash is one of the most famous and important music artists in the history of the US. His signature gravelly voice, personal yet public struggles, and incredible love affair with his wife were all things that drew people to the Man In Black.
But while many people know his music, they know very little about the man himself. In this article, we’ll go over things you should know about Johnny Cash, with several of them being things that just about nobody actually knows.
Johnny Cash Wasn’t His Real Birth Name
Cash was born on February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas. There are plenty of rumors and stories related to his birth name, mostly revolving around his parents trying to decide what to actually name him. They ended up settling on J. R. Cash. But it wasn’t initials that meant something else, as the “J” in there doesn’t stand for Johnny.
His real birth name is J. R. Yep, just the letters. It’s the name put on both his birth certificate and his high school diploma. In the southern US, it wasn’t uncommon at all during the time for kids to have names like that. But then how did he end up with the name Johnny?
Cash was his real last name. That surname can be traced back quite a long way to Scotland. When he met the producer of his first records, Sam Phillips, he thought that the singer’s last name was made up. It seemed a bit too good to be true for the producer, but Cash ended up convincing him it was his real name. The singer eventually gave himself the name Johnny out of necessity more than anything else.
He joined the Air Force in 1950, but the recruiter he talked to when he enlisted wouldn’t accept initials for a name. It’s safe to assume that the recruiter believed that the initials of his first name were meant to stand for something and were more of a nickname than anything else. He refused to accept Cash into the Air Force without a proper name, so the singer decided to name himself John R. Cash to make sure he wasn’t denied entry into the Air Force.
Johnny Cash Was Just As Religious As He Was An Outlaw
For a solid chunk of his music career, Cash was known as an outlaw of sorts. He was in all kinds of trouble and found himself on the wrong side of both the law and the people close to him on plenty of occasions.
During the 1960s, his rebellious image was one of the things that made people love him so much. It gave them something to relate to, as he wasn’t some famous star who was above the people he made music for; he was one of them. He was frequently known to be involved in antics like destroying hotel rooms, losing it on stage, and even driving under the influence.
Despite all of that, he was deeply religious. His wild streak might have lasted for quite a while, but before and after it, he was a devoted Christian. It was his marriage to June Carter in 1968 that really pulled him out of the rebellious phase he had found himself in. Because of her influence, he returned to the faith he had been instilled with in his youth. From the point of their marriage onwards, he was more reflective, examining his life and altering the way he did things.
In the 1970s, he even went as far as spending two years in theological school, earning a degree in theology and going on to become an ordained minister. Perhaps, the wedding he was most proud of presiding over was his daughter’s.
He Didn’t Just Sing About Prison, He Spent Plenty of Time In Jail Cells
Cash was well-known for his live albums, the most famous of which were recorded in prisons. He had several songs about prison life and going to prison. The biggest of those were Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison in 1968 and Johnny Cash At San Quentin in 1969.
He was always sympathetic towards prisoners, especially those who just seemed to be on the wrong side of society. He never spent a long stint in prison, but he was no stranger to being arrested and thrown in a jail cell. In fact, he was arrested on seven different occasions.
The most famous of those arrests occurred in El Paso, Texas, in 1965. He went to Juarez to get a cheap fix on his amphetamine addiction and crossed back over into the US. News reports stated he was found with 668 Decadrine and 475 Equanil tablets in his baggage. In the end, he got a suspended sentence and paid a fine, spending little to no time in a jail cell.
However, the image of him being arrested made him take a bit of a hit with conservative audiences and added an edge to his character that never seemed to ruffle out.
His list of charges is long, though rarely terrible. Drunkenness, reckless driving, and drug possession were all fairly standard for him. The funniest one had to be when he said he was arrested for picking flowers in someone’s yard.
In 1965, he played a concert at Mississippi State University. As he walked back to his hotel room, he stopped and began picking flowers off of a person’s lawn. After he was stopped by a police officer and arrested, he told everyone it was for picking flowers and trespassing.
What was left out of the story is that he was actually charged with public drunkenness, indecent exposure, and trespassing, not actually for the flowers. In the end, a night in a jail cell and a $36 fine were all he had to deal with. Well, sort of. He was so mad at the arrest that he kicked the cell door and broke his toe.
His First Guitar Wasn’t Bought In America
Cash is one of the most important American musicians in history, with much of his music revolving around typical American themes. With that in mind, it might shock a lot of people to learn that he didn’t buy his first guitar in the US.
He spent some time during his youthful years involved in music. His older brother Roy started a group called The Dixie Rhythm Ramblers, and his family as a whole sang spirituals together pretty often. Cash even competed in a few talent shows as a singer, but he ignored his talent and taste for music for the first part of his life. It wouldn’t be until he was sent to Germany in the Air Force that he would begin his music career in earnest.
He spent a good amount of time playing music with other servicemen in a band called the Landsberg Barbarians while in Germany, and after buying his first guitar there, he began to write songs. An early version of Folsom Prison Blues was written overseas. After he was discharged from the Air Force and returned home, he put a little effort into finding work but really spent all of his energy on his music career.
Johnny Cash Wrote Much More Than Songs
Cash was a prolific songwriter, having at least some sort of writing credits on most of his hit songs and writing plenty of tracks for others along the way. But he was much more than a songwriter; he was a writer in his soul.
From the time he was a teenager, he was writing sketches, poems, and short stories. Even after he joined the Air Force and started writing music, he continued writing other types of works. His very first published piece was titled Hey, Porter in a military newspaper titled Stars And Stripes.
He would later use the title of that published work as the title of one of his early hit songs as well. Letters were another big part of his writing, but the ones he wrote to his family aren’t a big surprise; it was the letters he wrote to himself every year, keeping himself appraised of what was going on much like a diary.
His book career was masterful, and while it isn’t a secret, many people don’t know it. He wrote two autobiographies: Man In Black in 1975 and Cash: The Autobiography in 1997. One of the most interesting things about those autobiographies was that he didn’t use a typewriter or a computer for any of them. He took simple, lined notebook paper and wrote everything that went into the books.
He was also a novelist. His book The Man In White from 1986 was a fictional account of six years of the apostle Paul’s life, including his conversion to Christianity. Cash very much looked up to the apostle, finding traces of himself in the man. For him, the novel was a major source of pride, even to the point of naming it as one of the works he was most proud of in all of his life.
On Top Of Being A Musician, Johnny Cash Was An Actor
By the late 1950s, Cash had become a successful singer. Just like his friend and peer Elvis Presley, he decided to take a turn on the big screen to further his career. And while it never took off for him the way it did for the King of Rock and Roll, he still made several notable appearances on television.
The first big appearance Cash made was in the TV Civil War drama The Revel in 1959. Two years later, he would star in the crime drama film Five Minutes To Live. That movie didn’t make much money, so his contributions to films for the next few years would come in the form of providing music or writing for movies. In 1971, he got another chance at a big film, starring in the movie A Gunfight.
Eventually, both his spirituality and lack of acting success would lead him to produce and finance a film of his own. The 1973 movie Gospel Road: A Story Of Jesus was filmed in the Holy Land. It may have only been a mild success, but like his novels, he felt incredibly proud of it.
He would later appear in several TV shows and movies as a guest star. Columbo and Little House On The Prairie were the biggest ones of those. But it was his own TV show The Johnny Cash Show that eclipsed all of his other work in film and TV. It ran from 1969 to 1971 on ABC, bringing country music to mainstream audiences—for the first time in a lot of cases.
Johnny Cash Was Married Twice
Cash’s marriage to June Carter is one of the most famous relationships in all of music and something many hope to emulate in their own lives. But, that wasn’t the first time that he had been married in his life.
He started a relationship with Vivian Liberto while he was in training at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. When he was away in Germany, the two continued to talk to one another, reuniting when he was discharged in 1954. They would quickly marry, settling in Memphis, Tennessee, where he would begin his music career in earnest. They would have four daughters, Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara.
Unfortunately, the marriage was not built to last. The bigger his music career got, the worse their marriage became. Their marital strife came to a head when she requested a divorce in 1966. She eventually got fed up with him being gone on the road for long periods of time, his not-so-secret drug additions, and her suspicions that he was cheating on her. By 1968, the divorce was finalized, but he would marry quickly after.
Cash met June Carter in 1956 at his debut at the Grand Ole Opry. It was a huge night for his career, but he would walk away more concerned with her. At the time, she was married to Carl Smith. After Smith introduced Cash to his then-wife, Cash and June would become infatuated with each other. And yep, that was long before his marriage to Liberto was close to ending.
It’s hard to say when they began an intimate or even romantic relationship. Soon after meeting in 1956, the two began touring with each other. Carter even divorced Smith the same year she met Cash, but she went on to marry retired football player Edwin Nix the following year and had a daughter from that marriage. The two stayed together until 1966, conveniently the same year Liberto asked Cash for a divorce.
Unsurprisingly, it was Carter whom Liberto thought Cash was cheating on her with. Once both had finalized their divorces by 1968, the two very quickly married each other. Cash proposed to Carter at a show in Canada’s London Ice House at the beginning of 1968, and the two would get married a couple of weeks later. They would stay together until her death in 2003. He would struggle with her death, passing away only a few months after her.
Johnny Cash Was A Member of the Air Force
We talked about Cash joining the Air Force on at least one occasion in this article already. But what did he actually do in the Air Force?
He served in the US Army Air Force from 1950 to 1954. The distinctive scar on his chin came during that time, but he wasn’t wounded in combat or anything. He was left with a scar after surgery was performed to remove a cyst.
While serving in the Air Force, he was assigned to the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile in Landsberg, West Germany. He was a Morse Code operator, whose main objective was to intercept Soviet Transmissions. Keep in mind, Germany was still split at this time between Soviet-controlled East Germany and Western-controlled West Germany.
Interestingly, he was in Germany when the news came out that Joseph Stalin had died. He would eventually be honorably discharged from the Air Force as a Staff Sergeant.
Johnny Cash Wrote A Lot of His Own Songs, But Not His Biggest Hit
Cash scored a lot of hit tracks in his career, both for his own music catalog and as a songwriter. This included crossover hits on the pop and country charts, something that wasn’t a common occurrence during the 1960s and 1970s. The majority of his own songs, he wrote himself. But not all of his big hits came from his own pen.
It’s hard to deny Ring Of Fire standing above Cash’s other hits in terms of popularity. But it would be his future wife who would write it. Some rumors surround whether Carter wrote the track about falling in love with him, but she’s generally credited with coming up with the song thanks to some Elizabethan poetry.
Anita Carter would be the first to record it, as Cash’s wife intended it for her sister, and not him when she first wrote the track. This was because, while The Carter Sisters and Cash toured together and were friends, Cash and Carter were married to other people during that time.
For Anita, the song never made the charts and wasn’t in any way a hit single. But in the hands of Cash, the track took on new life. He added some mariachi-style themes to it and played it with The Carter Sisters.
Eventually, the song rose to number one on the Country Charts and broke into the top 20 of the pop chart. It spent seven weeks in that number-one performance and would become a signature track for Cash, played at every concert he performed from then onward.
There’s A Spider Named After Johnny Cash
New species are discovered all the time, and some of them end up with incredibly unique names because the scientist that finds them gets to name them. Chris Hamilton was doing research in 2016 that uncovered several new tarantula species. One of those was found in the area around Folsom Prison and was covered in black hair. Those two details inextricably connected it to Cash in his mind, making the scientific name of this new tarantula species Aphonopelma johnnycashi.
Johnny Cash’s Outlaw Image Didn’t Stop Him From Being An Activist
Cash was an incredibly popular singer and performer, with some very strong opinions about the way he looked at people, the system we live in, and how life ought to be. Many thought of him as a drunken outlaw at the time, but he was more of a humanitarian and activist than just about anyone ever believed.
His Blood, Sweat, And Tears album was written about the working man, but it would become a concept album about race in the US and the violent way racial hierarchies were enforced in the early 1960s. He wasn’t writing freedom songs, but a lot of his work was actually confronting white listeners with the shocking brutality that Black communities were experiencing. When it came to the Civil Rights movement, he was an outspoken and articulate ally,
He didn’t stop at the Civil Rights movement of his day either. He often used his platform to bring awareness to the issues plaguing Native American peoples. Many of his tracks included portions about the humanity of indigenous people and their continued suffering under the US Government. In 1965, he even appeared on Pete Seeger’s TV show and labeled himself an activist for Native Americans.
Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash Were Actually Friends
Elvis moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1948, and he graduated from high school there in 1953. Cash would move his new family to Memphis in 1954, and both began their music careers around the same time. Funnily enough, both artists were first signed to Sun Records and even jammed and recorded together. The two would become the biggest stars of the burgeoning rock and roll genre and the biggest names under the label.
They crossed paths often and would gain a mutual admiration for each other’s work. Cash would even attend some of Elvis’ earliest concerts. And while both would end up having different career paths that took them in different directions, that admiration, respect, and friendship would live on as long as the two artists were around.
An Ostrich Almost killed him
I’ll end it off with one of the wildest stories from his autobiography. Cash: The Autobiography describes his encounter with an ostrich in an exotic animal park that he had behind his House Of Cash offices. According to him, the male ostrich he ran afoul of was mad that his female had died. As he walked across the property, the ostrich attacked.
Nothing happened the first time he was threatened, though on his way back the ostrich would strike again. He threw a stick at the ostrich and missed, so it jumped into the air. On the way down, it slashed with its talons. It broke two of his ribs and cut his stomach open from the sternum to his belt. Thankfully, the belt stopped the claw, and we didn’t lose Johnny Cash.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.