Johnny Cash — the name really needs no explanation. He was a larger-than-life figure during his lifetime, whose legend has continued to grow after his death — and whose name has become synonymous with country music.
His hit recordings and memorable live performances have a lot to do with it, but the way that he lived his life certainly does, too. He embraced tradition, and yet he exercised the freedom to follow his own mind; he was both a god-fearing Christian and a rebellious outlaw; he moved among presidents and yet remained a man of the people; he believed in home and family and yet spent much of his life on the road performing for thousands of people. These contradictions made the "Man in Black" the compelling figure he was, and along with the integrity he exhibited throughout his life, they invested his music with a unique power that continues to resonate long after his passing.
Unfortunately, becoming a legend often translates into becoming an image more than a human being. There has been a tendency in recent years to bake down Cash’s personality into dress code, a handful of iconic photographs, a simplistic movie bio or even a not very representative late-career video. But Cash was much more than a defiant gesture, a fashion statement, and a few records recorded in prisons. He was a complex man with varied and unusual life and career.
Johnny Cash is not his real name
Upon first meeting Cash for the first time, Sam Phillips, the producer of his first records, thought that Cash had made up his last name. It sounded like “Johnny Dollar” or “Johnny Guitar.” In fact, the family name of Cash can be traced back almost a thousand years to Scotland, to the ancient kingdom of Fife. It was the “Johnny” that was an invention.
The story goes that Cash’s parents were indecisive about what their fourth child’s name should be. His mother’s maiden name was Rivers, and she stumped for that; his father’s name was Ray, and he held out for that. “J.R.” was a shortcut to avoid conflict. It was not uncommon for Southern kids to have names made of initials in the days of the Depression, and Cash was called J.R. all through his childhood (except to his father, who nicknamed him “Shoo-Doo”). He was still J.R. even after he graduated high school; “J.R.” is the name on his diploma.
It wasn’t until Cash joined the Air Force in 1950 that he had to assign himself a name. The recruiter would not accept a candidate with a name comprised of initials, so J.R. became “John R. Cash.”
He helped dig his brother’s grave
Cash experienced tragedy in his family at a fairly early age, when he was 12. He grew up admiring and loving his brother Jack, who was two years his senior. Jack was a mixture of protector and philosophical inspiration; despite his young years, he was deeply interested in the Bible and seemed to be on his way to becoming a preacher. Jack worked to help support the large Cash family, and while cutting wood one Saturday, he was accidentally pulled into a table saw. The saw mangled Jack’s midsection, and he exacerbated the problem by crawling across a dirty floor to reach help.
Jack lingered for a week after the accident, but he stood no chance of surviving. His death had a profound impact on the young Cash, who until that time had been a gregarious boy, full of jokes. By all reports, he became more introspective afterwards and began to spend more time alone, writing stories and sketches. Jack’s deathbed words about seeing angels also affected him deeply on a spiritual level.
According to his sister Joanne, on the day of Jack’s funeral, Cash went to the gravesite early. He took up a shovel and began to help the workers dig Jack’s grave. At the service, his clothes were dirty from the effort, and he wore no shoes since his foot was swollen from stepping on a nail.
Cash’s devotion to his brother Jack would remain a constant throughout his life, and in an echo of the famous Christian phrase “What would Jesus do?”, Cash would ask himself “What would Jack do?” when he was faced with a difficult situation.
He bought his first guitar in Germany
Cash’s oldest brother, Roy, was the first Cash to make a small splash in the music industry. Roy started a band called the Dixie Rhythm Ramblers, who for a time had a show on radio station KCLN and played all around Arkansas. Cash’s family also regularly sang spirituals together, either at the family home or at his grandparents’ dinner table. Cash himself sang at school and in church, even once winning a talent show and the $5 that went with the victory.
Despite his obvious interest in music and talent for it, Cash wouldn’t get a guitar and start seriously writing songs until he joined the Air Force and was shipped away to Germany. His guitar, purchased in Öberammergau, cost about the same amount he’d won in that talent show years before. Soon, he was playing with a bunch of like-minded servicemen in a ragtag band branded the Landsberg Barbarians. He began to write songs, too, including the first version of his first big hit, “Folsom Prison Blues.” Although he would make half-hearted attempts to work a “real” job on his return from the service in 1954, mostly to support his new wife and children, Cash had found his path in life and pursued it from then on.
He was a novelist
Cash wasn’t only a songwriter. He was a writer, plain and simple. He wrote sketches and poems as a child, stories as a teenager, and continued to write even after joining the Air Force. In fact, his first published piece, called “Hey Porter,” appeared in Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, during his Air Force hitch (the title was later recycled for one of his early hits). He wrote letters to family and friends, and even letters to himself, year in and year out. He also wrote two autobiographies, Man in Black (1975) and Cash: The Autobiography (1997), which he wrote in longhand on lined notebook paper.
What many people don’t know is that Cash was also novelist. In 1986, he published the novel Man in White, a fictional account of six years in the life of the apostle Paul, including his conversion on the road to Damascus. The novel was an outgrowth of Cash’s ever-deepening interest in Bible study in the early 80s, particularly after he had a relapse into the prescription pill addiction that plagued him in the 60s. It’s not difficult to see the parallels between Paul, a Pharisee who came to Christ through a dramatic conversion out of blindness, and Cash, who also saw himself as saved from blindness by the “man in white.” The novel was moderately successful and received positive reviews, mainly from religious periodicals, but more importantly, it was a source of pride for Cash, who considered it one of the achievements he was most proud of.
He became an ordained minister
Cash was well-known for his “outlaw” image based on his reputation as a hellion, particularly in the 60s, when he would smash up hotel rooms, drive his Jeep while hopped up on pills, and have brushes with the police. This period of his life reached a head when he was drummed off the Grand Ole Opry for dragging a mic stand across the footlights of the stage in a fit of temper, disrespecting the “mother church” of country music. Afterward, he ran his car into a utility pole, knocking out several of his teeth and breaking his nose. Most of Cash’s behavioral excesses were the result of drug abuse.
Once he remarried to June Carter of the famous Carter Family in 1968, Cash began a decades-long re-examination of his life and re-dedication to his Christian roots. This culminated in two and a half years of study in the late-70s, after which he received a degree in theology and became a minister. He was encouraged in his studies by the Reverend Billy Graham, who became a close friend of the Cash family during these years. Although he never attempted to marshal a congregation or play a guiding role in church services, Cash did preside at the wedding of his daughter Karen. Becoming a minister was the utmost expression of the religious feeling that characterized much of his life.
He was arrested seven times
Cash’s most popular and best-selling albums were the live albums he recorded in prisons: namely, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison in 1968 and Johnny Cash at San Quentin in 1969. Throughout his career, he performed in prisons, sympathetic to the plight of inmates who ran afoul of society. Although he himself never spent any great length of time in jail, he was arrested seven times and spent a few nights in jail.
Perhaps his most famous arrest occurred in El Paso, Texas, in October of 1965. Cash had crossed over the border into Juarez to buy cheap amphetamines, which he had become addicted to in the early 60s. News reports said that he was found with 668 Dexadrine and 475 Equanil tablets in his luggage. He received a suspended sentence and paid a small fine, but the image of Cash being led away in handcuffs was not a hit with Cash’s conservative audience, as edgy as it may seem to contemporary eyes.
Between the years 1959 to 1968, Cash was arrested for public drunkenness, reckless driving, drug possession, and memorably, picking flowers. In the small town of Starkville, Mississippi, Cash was drunkenly exploring the town at 2 a.m. when he decided to pick some flowers in someone’s yard. Arrested by local police, he was not a penitent guest at the Starkville jail; he screamed and kicked at the cell door so hard that he broke his toe. He later wrote a song about his experience that became a highlight of his At San Quentin album.
One experience he didn’t write about in song but recounted in his first autobiography was a night in jail in Carson City, Nevada. Sharing a cell with a threatening lumberjack who refused to believe he was Cash, he spent most of the night singing his big hits and gospel songs to pacify his intimidating cellmate. The man never did believe he was Cash, but he fell asleep and Cash survived the night intact.
He had a side career as a motion picture and TV star
In the late 50s, Cash moved out to California. A successful singer at this point, he had notions of following his friend Elvis Presley’s lead and making the move into motion pictures. This aspect of his career never took off in a big way, but throughout his life, Cash did appear in various movies and TV shows.
His first appearance was in the popular TV Civil War drama The Rebel in 1959. His first film followed two years later, the low-budget crime drama Five Minutes to Live, in which he played the role of Johnny Cabot, a criminal who holds a bank president’s wife hostage (future TV star and director Ron Howard also appeared in the movie). The film was not a success, and Cash’s movie involvement for several years would take the form of performing a song or writing the theme until he starred with Kirk Douglas in A Gunfight, a dark 1971 western about two aging gunfighters who sell tickets to a duel likely to result in their deaths.
The movie project that was closest to Cash’s heart, however, was a movie he financed and produced himself in 1973 called Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus. Enamored with the Holy Land, Cash and his crew filmed the life of Jesus on location in Israel. Although the film met with limited success, with prints showing primarily to church groups, Cash considered it his finest cinematic achievement.
In the 70s and 80s, Cash would appear in a few TV movies and guest star on TV shows like Columbo and Little House on the Prairie, but he did them mostly for fun and no longer nurtured ideas of becoming a movie star. His most significant achievement on TV was The Johnny Cash Show, a TV variety show that ran for two seasons from 1969-1971 on ABC and featured guests like Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and Joni Mitchell. Along with Glen Campbell’s similar program that ran during the same period, Cash’s show brought country music to a mainstream audience for the first time.
He didn’t write his biggest hit
Cash had many hits during his long career, both on the pop and country charts, but despite having composed a large share of them, his all-time bestseller was a song he didn’t write.
In 1963, Cash recorded the song “(Love’s) Ring of Fire,” a song that Anita Carter released as a single a few months earlier. The song was co-written by Carter, Anita’s sister, and singer-songwriter Merle Kilgore, who had some hits of his own in the early 60s. Anita Carter’s version of the song was not a hit; Cash heard it, decided to add Mexican-style mariachi horns to his arrangement, and released his own version of the song as “Ring of Fire.”
The song was an immediate hit, hitting #1 on the country chart and even making the pop Top 20. It stayed at #1 for seven consecutive weeks. Cash played the song at almost every concert he performed from then on.
At this time, Cash was friendly with the Carter sisters and often toured with them and their mother Maybelle of the original Carter Family. Carter often explained that she wrote “Ring of Fire” about feelings she had for Cash, at a time when both of them were married to other people. It wouldn’t be until 1968 that the ring of fire would be extinguished when Cash married Carter and she became June Carter Cash.
He didn’t actually always wear black
Although he wrote a song called “Man in Black” that explained the philosophy behind why he always dressed in black (essentially, until people were treated fairly and injustices were addressed), Cash didn’t always perform wearing black clothes, and he didn’t always wear black in his day-to-day life.
Originally, Cash wore black on stage because he and his backing musicians, the Tennessee Two, wanted to have matching outfits and the only garment they had in common was a black shirt. But early pictures of the group show them wearing lighter colors, and there was no hard-and-fast rule. Cash would often wear a white shirt with a sport coat in appearances and in photos. Sometimes he would even wear an entire suit of white. Album covers show him in stripes, plenty of blue denim, and even a grey shirt with a flower design.
In the 70s, with the popularity of the Man in Black image, Cash began to wear black clothes more consistently, but even in his old age, he could be spotted in a light windbreaker or a denim shirt. Certainly, Cash’s fashion statement had a rippling effect on the generations of punk and gothic rockers to come, but he was far less doctrinaire than the myth of the Man in Black would have us believe.
He windshield-wiped Faron Young's ashes
Befitting his status as one of the most prominent men in country music, Cash never failed to celebrate older musicians he admired, such as the Louvin Brothers or Ernest Tubb, or draw attention to younger musicians and songwriters such as Kris Kristofferson (whose “Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down” would become a big hit for Cash) or Rodney Crowell (who would eventually marry Cash’s daughter Roseanne). He seemed to know everybody at one point or another, from Patsy Cline and Ray Charles to the members of U2. Cash counted several country stars among his best friends, including Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and the “Hillbilly Heartthrob,” Faron Young.
Faron Young was one of the greatest proponents of the honky-tonk-style of country music in the 50s and 60s, a rhythmic style that dealt with intense themes of heartbreak, excessive drinking, and adultery. From 1953 to 1973, he charted 70 Top 40 country hits, many of them Top 10. He made several movies and also co-founded the popular Nashville music periodical Music City News.
Although he continued to perform and occasionally record through the 80s and 90s, Faron Young no longer troubled the hit parade, and his health began to fail due to a bad case of emphysema. In 1996, depressed about his health and declining career, he committed suicide by shooting himself.
Young was cremated, and the Cashes asked Young’s son if some of his father’s ashes might be sprinkled in the garden at their home. Unfortunately, during the ceremony, an unexpected wind blew some of Faron’s ashes onto the windshield of Cash’s nearby parked car. Cash wasn’t home at the time, but when he returned, he cleared his windshield of the ashes, later remarking that Faron’s remains “went back and forth, back and forth, until he was all gone.” A marker was erected in Cash's garden naming it "The Faron Garden" in tribute to his departed friend.