With his gravelly baritone and colorful lyrics, Johnny Cash became one of the 1960s’ most prolific crossover artists, bridging the gap between country and early rock ‘n’ roll with a moody, bluesy flair. But it wasn’t just his music that captivated audiences everywhere—it was also Cash himself, the especially intense “Man in Black” who struggled with addiction for most of his life and found strength in the arms of his fellow country singer and eventual wife, June Carter Cash. Learn more about Cash’s legendary life and career below.
1. Johnny Cash’s birth name was J.R. Cash.
On February 26, 1932, Ray and Carrie Cash welcomed their fourth of seven children in Kingsland, Arkansas, and simply couldn’t agree on what to name him. Carrie favored “John” or her maiden name, “Rivers,” while Ray wanted to name his new son after himself. As a compromise, they settled on “J.R.,” which technically doesn’t stand for anything. When J.R. enlisted in the Air Force, the recruiter wouldn’t accept initials as a full name, so he changed it to “John R. Cash,” which gave way to the nickname “Johnny.”
2. Johnny Cash's older brother died in a tragic accident.
Cash grew up idolizing his brother, Jack, who was two years his senior. “There was nobody in the world as good and as wise and as strong as my big brother Jack,” Johnny once said. But tragedy struck in May 1944, while Jack was working in his high school’s wood shop. Someone had removed the protective guard from the table saw and switched out its blade for a larger one; when he went to cut a piece of wood, the saw cleaved through his abdomen, and he died from the wound several days later. Johnny, who was just 12 years old at the time, took it upon himself to help dig Jack’s grave.
3. Johnny Cash’s vocal coach advised him to stop taking lessons.
Cash grew up with Gospel songs as his main musical influence and sometimes performed in school talent shows. His mother, who could play the guitar and piano, encouraged her son’s musical predilections, and even scrounged up some money for voice lessons. However, his teacher promptly advised him to quit, worried that any further formal training would alter Cash’s unique way of singing. “Don’t ever take voice lessons again,” she said. “Don’t let me or anyone change how you sing.”
4. Johnny Cash intercepted Soviet radio transmissions during the Korean War.
In 1950, a 19-year-old Cash joined the Air Force and spent three years in Landsberg am Lech, Germany, deciphering messages in Morse code from radio transmissions he intercepted from Soviet Union aircrafts. While there, Cash purchased his first guitar for about $5 and even established his first band—the Landsberg Barbarians, a play on the name of the military base’s newspaper, the Landsberg Bavarian. It was also while in Landsberg that Cash watched the documentary Inside Folsom Prison, which inspired his song “Folsom Prison Blues.”
5. Johnny Cash had four daughters with his first wife, Vivian Liberto.
Cash began a relationship with Vivian Liberto while training at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and the two kept up correspondence throughout Cash’s tour of Germany. They married on August 7, 1954, settled in Memphis, and went on to have four daughters: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. But as Cash’s music career took off, his marriage deteriorated—due largely to his long absences, suspected infidelity, and destructive dependence on drugs and alcohol—and Vivian requested a divorce in 1966. It was finalized nearly two years later.
6. Johnny Cash met June Carter at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956.
Cash’s debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956 was an important moment in his career, but it had an even greater effect on his life as a whole. On that night, country singer Carl Smith introduced Cash to his then-wife and fellow performer, June Carter. Cash was instantly smitten, and Carter returned the feeling, later writing that she was captivated by his “black eyes that shone like agates” and impressed by the way he commanded the stage with a “gentle kind of presence.” The pair soon began touring together, and though it’s not clear exactly when their relationship turned romantic, it almost definitely happened while they were still married to other people—Carter married retired football player Edwin “Rip” Nix a year after divorcing Smith in 1956, and they had a daughter, Rosie, before separating in 1966.
“It was not a convenient time for me to fall in love with him, and it was not a convenient time for him to fall in love with me,” Carter told Rolling Stone in 2000. Cash felt the same way. “We hadn’t said ‘I love you.’ We were afraid to say it, because we knew what was going to happen: That eventually we were going to be divorced, and we were going to go through hell. Which we did.”
Cash proposed to Carter in front of 7000 people during a show at Canada’s London Ice House in February 1968. They married in Kentucky a few weeks later, and their union lasted until June’s death in 2003.
7. Johnny Cash became an ordained minister.
Despite his drug abuse and general status as a role model for outlaws, Cash was a devout Christian for most of his life. He and Carter both took Bible study courses at Christian International Bible College in the 1970s, and Cash became an ordained minister around that time, too. He even recorded a nearly 19-hour audio version of the New Testament of the Bible, and was also close friends with Reverend Billy Graham, who encouraged him throughout his spiritual journey.
8. Johnny Cash was once arrested for picking flowers—or so he said.
Cash may never have shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, but his reputation for lawlessness wasn’t exactly based on nothing. He was arrested a total of seven times (though he only ever spent a few nights in jail) for crimes like drug possession and reckless driving. Late one night in May 1965, after Cash performed a concert at Mississippi State University, police found him wandering the town of Starkville and arrested him for public drunkenness. Cash protested, claiming that he was just picking flowers, but it was no use—the officers took him to the local jail, where he continued to protest in a very loud, painful way.
“I was screaming, cussing, and kicking at the cell door all night long until I finally broke my big toe,” Cash later wrote. He was released the next morning, and the ordeal inspired his song “Starkville City Jail.” In 2007, the city of Starkville held its first annual Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival to commemorate the incident, and even pardoned Cash during 2008’s event. “Johnny Cash was arrested in seven places,” festival founder Robbie Ward said at the time. “But he only wrote a song about one of those places.”
9. Johnny Cash wrote a novel.
In addition to his two autobiographies—1975’s Man in Black and 1997’s Cash: The Autobiography—the prolific musician also published a 1986 novel called Man in White, which imagines the life and religious transformation of Paul the Apostle. It wasn’t exactly critically acclaimed; Kirkus Reviews wrote that it “barely functions as a novel” and is “strictly for those with the patience of Job, and then some.”
10. Johnny Cash died just months after June Carter Cash.
On May 7, 2003, 73-year-old June Carter Cash slipped into a coma after undergoing heart surgery. She died on May 15, shocking everyone—especially her husband of 35 years. “After June died, life was a struggle for him," Kris Kristofferson, Cash's longtime friend and frequent collaborator, said. “His daughter told me he cried every night."
Cash continued to work through the heartbreak and his own deteriorating physical health, and finished recording his album American V: A Hundred Highways late that summer. He was hospitalized soon after, and passed away from diabetes-related respiratory issues on September 12, 2003, at age 71.
11. There’s a tarantula species named after Johnny Cash.
In 2016, arachnologist Chris Hamilton decided that Johnny Cash would be an especially apt namesake for a newly discovered species of tarantula for two reasons. One, the spiders were found around California’s Folsom State Prison, the setting for Cash’s legendary live album in 1968 (featuring his hit song “Folsom Prison Blues,” of course); and two, because the tarantula was covered in black hair, which reminded Hamilton of the dark clothing that the “Man in Black” so often sported. So he christened the tarantula Aphonopelma johnnycashi. “It immediately fit,” Hamilton told Live Science.
A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2022.