Read more in Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon
Johnny Cash. The Man. The Legend. The Icon. “The Man in Black.”
For nearly a half-century, Johnny Cash’s inimitable voice and songs provided the soundtrack to millions of American lives. Cash held a special place in our hearts as he was many things to many people: a master storyteller and a world-class embellisher; a drug addict and a social activist; a full-tilt party outlaw who secretly carried a Bible in his briefcase; a committed Christian who was both a sinner and saint; a tortured soul who sometimes pinballed between the two extremes.
In my new book, Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon, I unearthed many stories about the country music legend. Here are ten quick facts I discovered.
1. He was raised as a dirt-poor child in the Arkansas Delta in the midst of the Great Depression. Like the rest of his siblings, he picked cotton to help support his family. The work was monotonous, dirty and tiring – ten hours a day during harvest season. Cash was so prodigious, according to a childhood friend, that on a good day he could pick up to 300 pounds.
2. Cash was introduced to music when he was just four years old. He was listening to an old Victrola playing a railroad song, “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride,” which began a lifelong affair not only for music but trains and America’s railway system. Throughout his career, he wrote songs about life on the rails. In the 1960s, he released “Ride This Train,” the first of many concept albums. It was also the title of one of his most popular segments on The Johnny Cash Show in which Cash, usually dressed in period costume, covered the history of America in medley form.
3. His mother Carrie not only introduced him to the Lord, but a voluminous catalogue of hymns. The family often sang hymns in the cotton fields to ease the drudgery and lighten their hearts. Some of the songs included “Amazing Grace,” “The Uncloudy Day,” “Are You Washed in the Blood,” “Oh Come, Angel Band,” and “Just as I Am”—the last of which played while Cash answered an altar call at a revival meeting after his twelfth birthday.
4. Cash’s faith was shaken to the core after his older brother and best friend Jack was accidentally yanked into a pendulum saw. As Jack clung to life for a week, Cash said he was visited by an angel on his front porch—a man in a gray suit, who was idly leafing through a Bible Cash kept in his room. Cash pleaded with the angel to save Jack’s life and offered to switch places. “No,” the angel responded, “it’s not your time.” Jack died, but he would forever appear in Johnny’s dreams, always two years older than the singer was himself.
5. Before Johnny Cash transformed into “The Man in Black,” he was actually the Man in Blue. He became Airman John R. Cash when he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force on July 7, 1950. He excelled in his ability to intercept radio communications and transcribe Morse code signals. After basic and advanced training, he was shipped to Landsberg Air Force Base in Germany, where he took a quick fancy to German beer, cognac, and off-base benders with pals. His other extracurricular activities included peddling cartons of cigarettes on the German black market and getting into scraps at bars. However, it was in Germany where he formed his first music group, the Landsberg Barbarians, and began writing songs based on his own experiences. The first two songs he wrote were “Hey, Porter” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”
6. On August 7, 1954, Johnny Cash married Vivian Liberto at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas. They met at a roller-skating rink in The Alamo City before Cash shipped off to Germany. They wrote thousands of letters to each other over a four-year period. The couple later produced four daughters: Roseanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. Sadly, their marriage began to unravel when Cash was introduced to amphetamines while on the road, and they divorced in 1966. Over the years, Cash’s amphetamine use steadily increased and nearly destroyed his career and all his relationships. At one point, his six-foot-two frame dipped to a dangerously low 150 pounds. Johnny and Vivian made peace with each other later in life, and he even approved a book Vivian wrote about their time together. He knew he had failed her.
7. Drugs weren’t Cash’s only vice: he liked liquor and women, and indulged in self-destructive behavior. He saw his fair share of scandal stemming from high-profile arrests, car accidents, and other drug- and alcohol-induced escapades, including one resulting in a forest fire that devastated more than 500 acres. His behavior caused collateral damage to his wife June Carter, his offspring and family members, business associates, and others who knew him well. He spent many of his waking hours sinning, praying, and seeking forgiveness.
8. After a decade and a half of intense fame and scrutiny, 41-year-old Johnny Cash rededicated his life to the Lord on May 9, 1971, after hearing a message from Acts 16:31 – “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved and thy house” (KJV). Cash rose to his feet, led his family to the altar, sank to his knees and recommitted his life to Jesus Christ at Evangel Temple in Nashville, Tennessee. Cash not only repeated the words from the “Sinner’s Prayer,” but he lived by them for the rest of his years. He stumbled many times along the way, but he always maintained the course.
9. Johnny Cash’s life was filled with setbacks, misadventures, and health scares that would surely have killed a lesser man. One was courtesy of an Ostrich name Waldo, who lived in the exotic-animal compound behind Cash’s office. One day the eight-foot, 250-pound bird attacked Cash and came down with his razor-like claws extended, breaking two of the singer’s ribs and ripping open his stomach. Only the big metal belt buckle he wore prevented Cash from being disemboweled. Before Cash managed to get a lick in with his stick and drive Waldo off, the ostrich broke three more of his ribs.
10. At the end of his life, Johnny Cash made a triumphant return to music with American Recordings, a series of intimate acoustic cowboy-country and folk songs. Producer Rick Rubin encouraged Johnny to come record whatever songs he wanted, and brought in other artists ranging from Sheryl Crow, Mick Fleetwood and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers to back him. But during this time of appreciation and reexamination, he was frail, and there wasn’t a part of him that functioned properly and didn’t hurt. He spent as much time in the hospital as not. Many of his family and friends, including his beloved wife June Carter, had died. His faith was at its strongest, and he spoke of its unshakability and how much he was looking forward to dying. One of the last things he said was, “That great light is a light that now leads me on and directs me and guides me. That great light is the light of this world, and into a better world. And I’m lookin’ forward to walkin’ into it with that great light.”
Photos courtesy: Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Staff