When you listen to a Johnny Cash song, you can tell he’s been through a lot. Even without reading into the lyrics, his shaky, weathered, baritone voice reveals it all. But while you may have known about his relationship with June, his time in jail, and his appetite for drugs, there is no shortage of little slices of the Man In Black’s life that aren’t served up in most versions of his story. From Elvis impressions to that time he was attacked by an ostrich, Cash’s life is littered with fun facts. We put together some of the most interesting.
Here are 15 things you didn’t know about Johnny Cash.
Hit “next” or shift+right to see the list…
He was once hospitalized by an ostrich.
By the time Johnny Cash was in his fifties he’d had a lot of success – enough to own a private ranch cum menagerie in Henderson, Tennessee in which he kept, amongst other things, ostriches. One day, a male ostrich (and those motherfuckers are big) kicked him in the chest, leaving him in intensive care with 5 broken ribs and internal bleeding. To add to his problems, it was after this visit to hospital that Johnny became addicted to morphine, after having been prescribed it for his injuries.
The origins of “Walk The Line” come from playing Bavarian guitar music backwards.
When Johnny Cash was in the air force he found solace and pleasure in playing guitar and writing songs, but in an interview with Larry King he explained that the prominent shuffling sound that runs throughout “Walk The Line” was inspired by the sound of a tape playing backwards. Even more amusingly, it was actually a tape of Bavarian guitar music. Johnny explained:
Oh. I had a little recorder. I had a Wilcox Gay Recorder — a tape recorder in the Air Force in 1952. And I was always — only guitar I was going do-do-do-do-do — well it got turned around. The tape got in there backwards. And hen I played it, it went sh-sh-sh-sh and it had a kind of a drone sound like I finally had on the record.
But I couldn’t figure out where that sound came from when I played it. When I took that sound — when I got home — when I was home from the Air Force, I was on the road and that sound was haunting me again. And then — but then the line “because you’re mine, I walk the line.” It kept coming to me, you know?
Listen below to one of Johnny Cash’s most famous songs, and hear the “sh-sh-sh-sh” that he’s talking about.
Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison were neighbors in Tennessee for 20 years.
Not only did these two music legends live next door to each other for 20 years, but they were firm friends who often collaborated and covered each others songs. Johnny Cash helped get Roy’s records into the hands of a Sun Records executive which led to his signing, but their relationship went much further than business. In fact, when tragedy struck, and Roy’s house caught on fire, killing his two sons, Cash bought the abandoned lot where the house had been and turned it into a memorial grove, promising never to sell it.
He made an intentionally ridiculous song called “Chicken In Black” to get his record label’s attention.
In 1984, Johnny Cash felt ignored and “invisible” to his then record label, Columbia. Rather than taking to Twitter to vent his frustration, he decided to make a self-parodying, comedic song about his brain being transplanted into a chicken. The song and accompanying video are brilliantly funny, and it seems that Johnny Cash taking the piss is still better than 90% of artists being serious. Needless to say Cash and Columbia parted ways shortly after.
President Jimmy Carter was his cousin.
Johnny became a cousin by marriage to future President Jimmy Carter, who himself was a distant cousin of June Carter. When they met they became friends and remained so throughout their lives. Jimmy Carter wasn’t Cash’s only Presidential acquaintance though – he was a buddy of George Bush Sr., and compared shoe size with Bill Clinton during a White House visit.
When he toured in the 1950’s he would sometimes bust out a brilliant Elvis impression.
Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins toured together as up and coming artists, but once Elvis was more established, Cash would sometimes break out an impromptu impression at his concerts. With tongue firmly in cheek, and making no effort to be cool or maintain an image, Johnny Cash has a hell of a lot of fun mocking and imitating Elvis’ swinging hips and gruff voice.
He was the first person to ever be sued by the U.S. for starting a forest fire.
Johnny Cash had a camper-van (called Jesse James) which he would drive into the desert for amphetamine binges. He painted the windows black so he could sleep during the day, but unfortunately an oil leak from the van set the Los Padres National Wildlife Refuge on fire, destroying acres of trees and killing all but nine of the endangered condors that lived in the reserve. Showing no remorse Cash told the inquest “I don’t give a damn about your yellow buzzards” and was subsequently successfully sued by the government for starting the fire.
He was part of a country super-group featuring Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.
Everyone loves a super-group, but when it consists of four of the most prominent recording country artists around, it’s not something to be missed. The group recorded three albums together for Columbia between 1985 and 1995 and not only did they help popularize the sub-genre of “outlaw country”, but they scored a number 1 hit with “Highwayman”, a cover of Jimmy Webb.
He released 500 baby chickens into a hotel when touring in the 50’s.
Johnny Cash was a rebel in his younger days, and along with his band The Tennessee Three, caused a fair bit of havoc in hotels and clubs throughout America. On top of stabbing a reproduction of the ‘Mona Lisa’ that didn’t live up to his standards, he once bought 500 baby chickens and released 100 on each floor of the hotel he was staying in
He was in a coma for 12 days and survived.
In 1993 Cash was ill a number of times with diabetes and pneumonia, but worst of all he was actually in a coma for a full 12 days while the doctors tried to work out what was wrong. Cash told Larry King:
Well, it was 1993 and I was hospitalized with a — I went into a coma and I was there for 12 days. They all thought I was dying and they couldn’t diagnose what was wrong with me. They finally came up with a diagnosis of Shydreger Syndrome. It was few months later they realized I didn’t have that so it was Parkinson’s. And then it was not that. Then finally it was autonomic neuropathy.
Having been diagnosed with autonomic neuropathy, which means the nerve ends slowly deaden and lose feeling, Cash continued to record and occasionally play live until his death.
His Desert Island Discs would include Bob Dylan and Beethoven.
In his autobiography, Cash, Johnny says that were he stuck on a desert island the records he would take would be:
Bob Dylan’s The Freeweelin’ Bob Dylan, Merle Travis’ Down Home, Jimmie Davis’s Greatest Gospel Hits, Emmylou Harris’ Roses in the Snow, Rosanne Cash’s The Wheel, a gospel album by Rosetta Tharpe, “something by Beethoven,” and You Are There by Edward R. Murrow.
The scar on his face was from a surgical operation gone wrong.
Johnny’s time in the air force left him with more than an interest in guitar and the beginnings of “Walk the Line”, he was left with something more permanent in the form of a scar on the right side of his face. The surgeon who was removing a cyst from his face screwed up the procedure, and according to some, may have even been drunk.
He could translate Russian Morse Code.
Johnny Cash was a great singer, songwriter and guitarist, but amongst his hidden talents was something he learnt on the air force base in Germany. As random as it may seem, the “Ring Of Fire” singer actually knew how to translate Russian Morse Code!
Muhammad Ali wrote him a poem called “Truth,” which he kept locked in his safe.
Being a world-famous musician, you get to meet and interact with other celebrities, but being given a poem written by The Greatest, Muhammed Ali, has to rank pretty high on anyone’s list of achievements. Johnny must have felt strongly about poem, which was actually by Sufi leader Hazrat Inayat Khan, as he kept it in his safe all his life.
Johnny Cash really was the man in black – he never performed in any other color clothing.
Last but not least, Johnny Cash really was the man in black. It was neither a gimmick nor a marketing plan, he just felt most comfortable in black, and said in an interview:
“[I’ve] never done a concert in anything but black. You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there.”
Along with his famous concert opening line of “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”, the vision of the black-suited storyteller is one of music’s most enduring images which will continue to live on for years to come.