“Ain’t nothin’ too weird for me. People call me wild. Not really though, I’m not. I guess I’ve never been normal, not what you call Establishment. I’m country.”—Johnny Cash
If there’s one name in country music that everyone knows, including those who barely know anything about country music, it’s Johnny Cash. His deep, soulful voice garnered him millions of fans the world over, spanning multiple decades. Even today, long since his first song was released and more than a decade since his passing, his music is still held in high regard. Not even when he was spiraling down drug-induced rabbit holes did his popularity wane. He led an incredible life, from poverty and cotton farms to selling out concerts and earning awards. The Man in Black may be gone in person, but his spirit lives on through his song. Keep reading to find out more about his rollercoaster life.
42. Big Reputation
Cash had one of the more rough reputations in country music, to say the least. He was known to destroy his hotel rooms, have run-ins with the police and drive while under the influence of pills. One time, he broke his nose and lost some teeth after smashing his car into a utility pole.
41. Havoc in the Hotel
Now, when we say he wreaked havoc in hotels, we really mean it. During one stay at a hotel in the 1950s, he and his bandmates let 100 baby chicks loose on each floor of the hotel they were staying at—that’s 500 baby chicks squawking around!! On a separate occasion, they destroyed another hotel’s plumbing system by flushing cherry bombs down the toilets. He also wasn’t a fan of the painting hanging in yet another hotel, a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, and decided to stab it.
40. Birds of a Feather
Cash had a strong fascination with birds. He decided to record a not-great album in 1984 because he felt his record company wasn’t giving him the attention he deserved. He called it “Chicken in Black,” with one of the songs referring to him and a chicken having their brains swapped.
39. That’s One Angry Bird
In other bird-related Cash facts, he once kept an ostrich on his farm. Well, that ostrich ended up attacking him one day, kicking him and leaving him with internal bleeding and a number of broken ribs.
38. Flying Snakes Must Have Been Terrifying
Just because he had a rough-and-tumble image didn’t mean he was completely fearless. No, he was actually afraid of snakes and of flying.
37. Finding Himself
After all of the shenanigans he got into, he eventually calmed down and lived a fairly normal life. The common lore surrounding his life change is a story about Cash, high on drugs, crawling into a cave in Tennessee to die. He had a spiritual awakening in the cave and went on to get sober. In an even more romantic version, he emerges from the cave to find June Carter waiting for him. Either way, he went on to marry Carter in 1968 and wound up becoming close friends with Reverend Billy Graham. He even earned a degree in theology, becoming a minister! He presided over his own daughter’s wedding, though he never went as far as to lead a church service.
36. A Cash of Covers
In his later years, Cash did quite a number of covers, including U2’s “One,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” He also recorded his own version of “Hurt,” originally by Nine Inch Nails. Originally, Trent Reznor wasn’t too happy about the cover, saying that the song had come from a very personal place. After he heard Cash’s version and saw the video, his opinion changed completely.
35. The Man in Black
Originally, Cash started wearing black because he and the Tennessee Two, his backing musicians, wanted to match while on stage. The only thing they all had that was similar was a black t-shirt. Sure, he did wear black clothes a lot, especially in the 1970s, but you wouldn’t always see him in it. Oftentimes, you’d find him wearing lighter colored clothes, sometimes even donning an all-white suit.
34. The Evolution of His Name
Quick: is Johnny Cash his real name? You’d be correct if you answered no. And the funny thing is, Cash is the real part! The surname goes so far back in Scotland it derives from Fife, an ancient kingdom. So here we’re left with Johnny. He was born as J.R. Cash—his parents just couldn’t agree on a name for him. His mother liked Rivers, as that was her maiden name, and his father liked Ray, for his own father. They settled on J.R. Cash, which is the name that appeared on his high school diploma. He changed his name when he wanted to join the Air Force in 1950. The recruiter made him change it from initials, so he became John R. Cash.
33. Early Mistakes and Heartache
Carter wasn’t Cash’s first wife. He married Vivian Liberto in 1954, just a month after he was honorably discharged from military service. Their marriage wasn’t all that great, though they did have four daughters together. When Liberto filed for divorce in 1966, she cited Cash’s drug and alcohol use, long tour schedule, and affairs as the reasons. Even Cash’s closeness with Carter came into the picture during his divorce.
32. Seeing the Light
Cash really got into religion in the 1970s, associating himself with a number of evangelists. The tone of his concerts even changed, as he started preaching to his fans to accept Jesus Christ into their lives and to condemn sexuality and violence. Just a few decades later, he ended up saying that he regretted that period in his life, and that he had learned to accept people as they are.
31. Friends in High Places
The singer never affiliated himself—at least publicly—with either political party in the US, but he did have great friendships with a few different presidents. It started with Richard Nixon and continued until Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He also kept a healthy distrust of each of them, but his health also wasn’t that great during their presidencies. He was closest with Jimmy Carter, who also happened to be distantly related to his wife, June Carter.
30. Fighting for Their Rights
Beginning in the late ‘50s, Cash found himself as a campaigner for Native American rights. He wrote a song titled “Old Apache Squaw” which he intended to put on his next album, but his record company, Columbia, didn’t think it wise, believing it was too radical and went against the mainstream. Later, in 1966, the Seneca Nation’s Turtle Clan adopted Cash for his activism.
29. Belly Achin’
As a kid, Cash worked in the cotton fields. He used to eat cotton buds while out there, even though his mom warned him they would upset his stomach. His family had 20 acres of land for the cotton farming, among other crops.
28. The Family That Sings Together
Music was in the blood of the Cash family. His oldest brother, Roy, was in a band called Dixie Rhythm Ramblers, and played across Arkansas. The Cash family often sang together, either around the table at his grandparents’ home or just at their own home. Cash didn’t just keep his singing for his family—he also sang at his church and school, even winning a talent contest once. He got five dollars as a prize.
27. Working Class Family
His family was not particularly well-off when he was a kid. His parents had seven children altogether and often struggled, especially during the Great Depression. At least twice, the family’s farm was flooded, which gave him the inspiration for his song “Five Feet High and Rising.” In fact, much of his very modest upbringing influenced his songwriting.
26. A Voice All His Own
He only ever took a handful of voice lessons in his life. The teacher proceeded to tell Cash to never let anyone tell him that he needed to change the way he sings. “After about three lessons the voice teacher said, ‘Don’t take voice lessons. Do it your way’,” Cash said about the experience.
25. Taking the Air Force by Guitar
It wouldn’t be until Cash was older that he really started taking singing seriously. It was only once he was in the Air Force that he bought his first guitar, and songwriting soon followed. He was even part of the Landsberg Barbarians, a band made up of other men serving in the Air Force.
24. Here, Translate This
Something else he learned in the Air Force? How to translate Russian Morse code.
23. Fancy Yourself a New Stove?
If you happened to live in Memphis in the mid-1950s, there’s a possibility that Cash sold you one of your appliances. Sales aren’t for everyone though, and Cash knew one thing for sure: it wasn’t for him. “I was the worst salesman in the world,” he once said.
The singer was gifted—can you call it gifted?—with a species of tarantula named for him. The tarantula, who is all black and can be found in Folsom, CA, is aptly named “Aphonopelma johnnycashi.”
21. Leaving it all on Paper
Putting pen to paper was a natural thing for Cash. He wrote songs, stories, poems, letters—you name it! He even handwrote two autobiographies, decades apart, in longhand. Man in Black was written in 1975, while Cash: The Autobiography was written in 1997. A novel by the name of Man in White was released in 1986, and Cash considered it as one of his best achievements.
20. Career by the Numbers
One undeniable fact is that Cash had an incredible career. He released a whopping 96 albums and 170 singles over a career that spanned from 1954 to 2003. 20 of those singles were lucky enough to get their own music video, and 13 of his singles went to number one on the charts, including “Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire,” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”
19. But Did They Ever Borrow Sugar From Each Other?
The singer had a pretty famous neighbor in Tennessee for a couple decades: singer Roy Orbison. Because of their proximity to each other, they often worked together on different tracks.
18. Was Ozzy Understandable Then?
Cash met and befriended another famous singer, Ozzy Osborne, while at an unlikely place: the Betty Ford Clinic. Cash had become addicted to painkillers and had checked in to help kick the habit. At that point, he had already long-since kicked his previous drug and alcohol habits.
17. Four Men and a Band
In 1985, Cash teamed up with the likes of Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings to form a country supergroup called The Highwaymen. They recorded three albums and performed periodically together throughout the latter half of the ‘80s and into the ‘90s.
16. Posthumous Honors
The band Coldplay was all set to a record a song with Cash for their album X&Y titled “Til Kingdom Comes.” Sadly, Cash died before they were able to. Coldplay still decided to record the song, including it as a hidden track on the album and dedicating it to the late singer.
15. A Serious Diagnosis
Cash suffered from something called Shy-Drager’s Syndrome. It’s a degenerative nerve disease that not only causes blackouts and tremors but also muscle stiffness and a predisposition to pneumonia. In both 1998 and 1999, Cash had to be hospitalized due to pneumonia.
14. Not Just a Skillful Singer
The singer had a bit of a career on screen as well. He starred in some TV shows and movies, though not seeing much success until he appeared in the 1971 film A Gunfight, co-starring Kirk Douglas. He also had a short-lived variety program, aptly named The Johnny Cash Show, that ran from 1969 to 1971.
13. Taking the Music to the Cons
Cash released not just one, but two live albums that he had recorded while performing in prisons. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison was released in 1968 and Johnny Cash at San Quentin was released a year later. These two albums were his most popular and best-selling of his career.
12. Highest of Honors
There are only two people who have been inducted into to the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame: Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
11. A Weighty Measure
Depending on what era you look of photos or videos of Cash from, you may have noticed that his weight greatly fluctuated. He was a big guy already, standing a couple inches over six feet. In his younger days, he topped 200lbs., but during his days of heavy drug use in the 1960s he lost a lot of weight, coming in at 140lbs. Once he finally gave up the drugs he essentially ballooned to about 250lbs.
10. Just Don’t Call Him Scarface
Cash had to have a cyst removed from his face while he was in the Air Force. The story goes that the doctor was drunk during the procedure and somehow messed up, leaving Cash with a permanent scar.
9. He Started Young
The singer was only 12 years old when he started smoking. Although, if he had already gone through puberty at that point and had his trademark deep voice, it would be hard to tell that he was not yet a teen.
8. Caught at the Crossing
Cash was arrested seven times in his life. He only ever spent a few nights in jail, though, nothing too crazy. One of these arrests came about in El Paso, Texas in 1965. He crossed the border to buy amphetamines on the cheap, something he had become addicted to. Reports at the time say he had 668 Dexadrine and 475 Equanil on him at the time of his arrest.
7. Stopping to Smell the Flowers
Another one of his arrests was for the terrible crime of… picking flowers. Yeah, we’re not kidding here! At two o’clock in the morning while in Starkville, Mississippi, he decided to check out the town and came across some flowers on someone’s lawn. Police picked him up and threw him in jail, though Cash didn’t go quietly. He kicked at the cell door to the point that he actually broke a toe.
6. Don’t Try This at Home, Kids
While out on one of his methamphetamine binges in the camper that he had named Jesse James, he started a forest fire. There was an oil leak in his camper and almost all of the endangered condors at the Los Padres National Wildlife Refuge were killed as a result. Cash was quoted as saying “I don’t give a damn about your yellow buzzards” at the time. He was also allegedly the first person to ever be sued by the American Government for starting a forest fire. I guess if a rock and roll stereotype is trashing hotel rooms, this sort of makes sense as a country star stereotype? Either way, don’t do it.
5. Heavy Burden to Bear
When Cash was 12 he lost his brother in a terrible wood cutting accident. 14-year-old Jack was pulled into a table saw, and, though he survived initially, he eventually passed away a week later. His sister Joanne told the story of Johnny getting up early the day of the funeral and helping to dig Jack’s grave. Cash would never be the same after that, becoming more introverted and deciding to write and draw instead of partaking in other activities. When he didn’t know what to do in a situation, he’d ask himself “what would Jack do?”
4. With This Ring
It took June a really long time before she agreed to marry Cash. He proposed to her 30 (!!!) times before she finally gave in, and their marriage lasted from 1968 until her passing in 2003.
3. There’s no Cure for a Broken Heart
Carter’s passing was sudden and it took its toll on Cash. She had gone in for heart surgery and died from complications relating to the surgery. One of his close friends, Kris Kristofferson, said that Cash struggled after she passed, and that “his daughter told me he cried every night.” Just four months later, Cash would also pass. He had been admitted to hospital not long before his death due to complications from diabetes.
2. Secret Admirer
Maybe the reason it took Carter so long to say yes to Cash was because of another ardent musical suitor: Elvis Presley. Cash found love letters from Presley to Carter in the attic in the 1980s and promptly burned them.
1. Putting it All Out There
One of Cash’s biggest hits, “Ring of Fire,” wasn’t original to him. June Carter initially wrote the song as “(Love’s) Ring of Fire” for her sister, Anita. However, the song was actually written about Cash. Both Cash and Carter were married to other people at the time but the song was her way of expressing her feelings for Cash. Anita’s version didn’t catch, but when Cash heard it, he tweaked it to make it his own and it became an immediate hit—not just on country charts, but on pop charts as well.