13 Things You Didn't Know About Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash by Heinrich Klaffs (CC BY-NC-SA)

Cheapism is editorially independent. We may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site.
Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash by Heinrich Klaffs (CC BY-NC-SA)

Surprising Truths About Johnny Cash

“Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.” You might be able to recall the sound of the iconic country singer’s deep voice proclaiming his catchphrase before each one of his hauntingly incredible performances when you read those words. With a career that has respawned generation after generation, even posthumously, The Man in Black (whose birthday is February 26) is nothing short of legendary. His gravelly vocals and rough-around-the-edges aura set him apart from every other entertainer in the industry, and he has long since been cemented in music history. But despite his vast fame and widespread notoriety, there are things you might not know about him. Read on for some of the most notable.

Related: 34 Bucket-List Destinations for Music Lovers

Johnny Cash
Wikimedia Commons

He Was a Novelist

You probably know that Johnny Cash was a lyricist and wrote most of his own songs. You’ve also probably heard that he penned two autobiographies. But did you know that his writing talents also led him down the path to become a novelist? Cash wrote a fictional novel titled “Man in White,” which was a story rooted in Christianity and drew inspiration from The Bible. It received critical acclaim, primarily from religious critics.

Related: Farewell Concert Tours — That Weren't Actually the End of the Road

Johnny Cash
Heinrich Klaffs / Flickr

Johnny Cash Wasn’t His Real Name

If you had to guess which part of Johnny Cash’s name was made up, you’d probably assume that “Cash” was a stage name. And you wouldn’t be alone with that assumption. When Sam Phillips, the producer of his first records, first met The Man in Black, he thought that the singer invented his own last name. In reality, “Johnny” was his made-up first name. Apparently his parents had a hard time choosing a name for Cash since he was their fourth child, so they ended up settling on “J.R.” It wasn’t until 1950 when Cash joined the Air Force that he took the name “John R. Cash” because the recruiter wouldn’t accept anyone with a name consisting of only initials. 

Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash

He Didn’t Write ‘Ring of Fire’

Despite being a colossal talent when it came to writing, Cash didn’t write his most famous song. The song was actually written by his beloved June Carter (before she was his wife) and singer-songwriter Merle Kilgore, and it was first performed by Carter’s sister Anita. However, her version of the song wasn’t a hit, so Cash decided to spruce it up with some Mariachi-style horns and release his own version. Carter later explained that her forbidden feelings for Cash (they were both married to other people at the time) inspired the song’s lyrics.

Related: The Most Popular Song the Year You Were Born

Autumnal wedding archway decoration of roses, apples, grape and pomergranate

He Was An Ordained Minister

After battling with drugs and alcohol abuse for several years and struggling to stay clean, Cash began reconnecting with his Christian roots in the late ‘70s. Cash and his wife June were both brought up in Christian households and the pair attended Bible study classes together to help Cash focus on his faith and conquer his addictions. He went on to earn a theology degree and by the early 1980s, he became an ordained minister — an accomplishment he kept under-the-radar.

Little boy praying in front of a cross

He Helped Dig His Brother’s Grave …

And we don’t mean metaphorically — according to his sister Joanne, Cash’s clothes were dirty for their brother’s funeral because he helped dig his grave before the service. Cash was just 12-years-old when his older brother Jack passed away after a run-in with a saw while he was cutting wood. The two brothers were only two years apart and they were practically inseparable and Jack’s interest in the Bible inspired Cash’s own spiritual growth. On his deathbed, Jack told Johnny that he could see angels — a revelation that stuck with Cash for the rest of his life. 

Ostrich, struthio camelus, Male in Courtship display, Masai Mara Park in Kenya

An Ostrich Nearly Gutted Him

In his second autobiography “Cash: The Autobiography,” the country music legend described a violent encounter he once had with an ostrich at the exotic animal park he established behind his House of Cash offices. According to Cash, the male ostrich who attacked him was cranky because his female companion had recently frozen to death. When Cash walked past him as he strolled the property, the ostrich cut him off, spreading his wings and hissing. Cash remained calm and still and nothing came of the first encounter. On his way back, he grabbed a six-foot long stick to defend himself with and when the ostrich began acting aggressively toward him again, Cash hurled the stick at him and missed. 

Cash wrote, “I missed. He wasn’t there. He was in the air, and a split second later he was on his way down again, with that big toe of his, larger than my size-thirteen shoe, extended toward my stomach. He made contact—I’m sure there was never any question he wouldn’t—and frankly, I got off lightly. All he did was break my two lower ribs and rip my stomach open down to my belt. If the belt hadn’t been good and strong, with a solid belt buckle, he’d have spilled my guts exactly the way he meant to. As it was, he knocked me over onto my back and I broke three more ribs on a rock — but I had sense enough to keep swinging the stick, so he didn’t get to finish me. I scored a good hit on one of his legs, and he ran off.” It goes to show that a quality belt is essential when dealing with exotic animals.

Criminal wearing handcuffs in prison

He Was Arrested More Than Once

Despite never serving any real time behind bars, The Man in Black was thrown in cuffs and arrested a staggering seven times. Cash collected a handful of misdemeanors between 1959 and 1968 for incidents including drug possession, public intoxication, and reckless driving. In 1965 alone, he was arrested twice — once for trespassing onto private property in the wee hours of the morning just to pick some flowers and once for smuggling prescription drugs into Mexico via his guitar case. While he might have only collectively spent a few nights of his life in a jail cell, his run-ins with the law helped him cultivate his iconic outlaw persona and inspired several of his songs.

Ring of fire Bailey Colorado Rocky Mountain forest wildfire

He Started a Forest Fire

Never mind the ring of fire — the country crooner found himself going down, down, down as the flames of a forest fire that he accidentally caused got higher. In June 1965, Cash was on a fishing trip with his nephew Damon Fielder in California’s Los Padres National Forest when his camper caught on fire. While Cash claimed that the cause of the fire was sparks from his camper’s defective exhaust system, Fielder believed that a drugged up Cash started a fire to keep warm and was too intoxicated to notice it getting out of control. Whatever the cause, the fire drove away 49 of the park’s 53 endangered condors and incinerated more than 500 acres. Upon a judge asking him why he started the fire, Cash’s response was, “I didn’t do it, my truck did, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it.” Be that as it was, the federal government still sued Cash who eventually settled the case by paying $82,001. 

Little chicks at farm feeding

He Once Let 500 Baby Chicks Out in a Hotel with His Band

His demeanor might have been stark and somber, but Johnny Cash had a wild side too, especially if he was on a high. With his Tennessee Three bandmates Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, Cash liked to get into a bit of mischief at hotels. The trio lit cherry bombs and flushed them down toilets and lunged television sets out of windows, but one of their most outside-the-box stunts happened in Omaha during the late ‘50s. Cash and his crew bought 500 baby chicks and set 100 of them free on each of their hotel’s five floors.

Roy Orbison
Roy Orbison by Jack De Nijs (CC BY)

Roy Orbison Was His Next Door Neighbor for 20 Years

If you’re a fan of Johnny Cash, you more than likely know that he was good friends with fellow musician Roy Orbison — they often collaborated together. But did you know that the two lived next door to one another for two decades? The singers lived on Old Hickory Lake in Tennessee and we can only imagine how epic neighborly barbecues must have been.

Python snake hiding in the house

He Had a Couple of Fears

Sure, Cash had that tough guy exterior, but he had a couple of weaknesses. The singer had a fear of flying and snakes freaked him out, too.

Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash by Heinrich Klaffs (CC BY-NC-SA)

He Bought His First Guitar During a Deployment

At an early age, Cash developed an interest in music. His oldest brother Roy had a band called the Dixie Rhythm Ramblers and played all over Arkansas. They even had a radio show at one point. Cash sang at his school and at church and he even won a $5 prize when he won a talent show. But he didn’t get his first guitar and begin writing music until he joined the Air Force. During his deployment to Germany, he spent just about the same amount he’d won at the talent show to buy his first guitar. He started writing songs soon after and the rest is history.

Jason Grote / Flickr

He Once Had Beck as His Opening Act

When Johnny Cash played the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles in 1995 to promote his album “American Recordings,” he had an unexpected opening act — Beck, who had just scored radio play with the alternative hit “Loser.” While Beck didn’t seem like an obvious fit, his performance of songs by country blues artists like Skip James and Mance Lipscomb proved he was in the right place.