11 Surprising Facts About Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash in 1966.
Johnny Cash in 1966.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

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.

John R. Cash in the Air Force during the early 1950s.USAMM Studios, YouTube

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.

Johnny and June Carter Cash in 1972.Michael Putland, Getty Images

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.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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Do You Hear What I Hear? Radio Stations Have Already Started Playing Christmas Music

Santa Claus is, of course, excited about this.
Santa Claus is, of course, excited about this.
Cottonbro, Pexels

November is always a tumultuous time for people who have strong feelings about when to begin listening to Christmas music. Any day after Thanksgiving is usually fair game, but many a Christmas enthusiast has blasted Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on November 1 (or even earlier). When radio stations start broadcasting holiday tunes all day long, however, it’s a pretty solid indication the listening season has officially commenced. This year, that’s happening a little earlier than usual.

According to Variety, more than 80 radio stations across the United States have already switched to playing Christmas songs only. Many made the flip this week, but some actually did it as far back as late September. The decision to start the celebrations early happened mainly for two reasons. First, radio programmers thought people could use a morale boost amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Because of what 2020 has been like we went earlier than most years,” John Peake, program director for Los Angeles station KOST, told Variety. “We did a pretty exhaustive survey with listeners asking, ‘Is it OK to go early, do you want Christmas or holiday music early this year?’ And it was a resounding ‘Yes.’” It’s not the first time radio hosts have turned to Christmas music to help listeners weather the long months of mask-wearing and social distancing—similar initiatives happened over the summer.

The other reason for an early kickoff is also related to the pandemic. With so many of us working from home (and going fewer places in general), program ratings have plummeted. Commuters are no longer listening to the radio during their morning and evening drives, and offices are no longer playing pleasant background music all day long. According to Peake, KOST doubles its listenership during the holiday-only broadcast each year, so he likes to begin as early as (most of) the audience deems acceptable. That’s usually before Thanksgiving, which not everyone appreciates.

“We get that, ‘Let’s wait 'til after Thanksgiving!’” KOST host Ellen K told Variety. “But I have to tell you, I didn’t hear from any of them this morning. It was all, ‘Let’s go.’”

[h/t Variety]