10 Curious Facts About Johnny Cash

The Man in Black had an undoubtedly complicated life. Johnny Cash’s life was full of intrigue and stories meant to be shared.

Apr 25, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

johnny cash curious facts


Johnny Cash led an incredible life, with a musical career that crossed genres and spanned over fifty years. He released dozens of albums, starred in films, and wrote novels. Even after his 2003 death, he continues to inspire musicians and listeners across generations. However, he was not a man without struggles and sometimes paradoxes. Trouble often found him, but he was a man who remained true to his convictions. Read on to learn about some of the most interesting stories from the Man in Black’s colorful life.


1. Cash was the First American to Learn of Stalin’s Death

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Photograph of Joseph Stalin. Source: Biography


Before his musical career took off, John R. Cash served in the US Air Force for four years. For much of that time, he was deployed to Landsberg, Germany, where he worked as a Morse Intercept Operator. In Germany, he purchased his first guitar for $5 and played in a band with fellow servicemen, the Landsberg Barbarians. He wrote several formative songs while stationed in Germany, including “Folsom Prison Blues.”


His daily work had Cash listening in to various Cold War-era Soviet missives. In March 1953, he became the first American to learn of Joseph Stalin’s death. He relayed the message to his superiors, who directly informed President Eisenhower. After about four years in the Air Force, Cash was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant.


2. He was a Prankster

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Cash (center) with Luther Perkins (left) and Marshall Grant (right) in 1955. Source: Johnny Cash Official Site


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In his younger days in particular, Cash enjoyed playing pranks on others, even strangers. He and his bandmates, Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, known as the Tennessee Two (they would later become the Tennessee Three when drummer W.S. Holland joined the group in 1960), were known to wreak havoc when they got a wild hair. They would throw lit cherry bombs down hotel toilets, for instance.


However, while staying at a hotel in Omaha, Nebraska in the late ’50s, they got really creative. The three men went to a local hatchery and purchased 500 day-old chicks. They returned to the hotel and set 100 chicks free on each of its five floors.


3. Cash Believed His Brother Was Murdered

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A childhood picture of Johnny Cash (left) and his older brother Jack (right) and adult Cash (far right). Source: AP via Rolling Stone


When Cash was only 12 years old, his beloved brother Jack, two years his senior, was killed in a gruesome table saw accident at his job at the local high school woodshop. Someone had removed the guard from the saw, and Jack was not able to get out of the way when a piece of wood got caught in the machine and was pulled in. He was cut from stomach to groin. Though he managed to survive for about a week after the accident, he would succumb to his wounds. Jack’s death deeply affected his younger brother.


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A contemplative Cash. Source: The Michael Ochs Archive via The New Yorker


Cash felt a great deal of guilt and blame after the accident and felt as if his father wished it had been him who died instead of his older brother. In a 1995 interview, he floated a theory that the death was not an accident but a murder. He spoke of a neighbor who was working with Jack at the shop that day who seemed to disappear after the accident. The guard being removed from the saw also seemed suspicious to Cash, though his daughter Kathy has suggested that the speculation of murder may have been a coping mechanism for her father to deal with his loss.


4. He Was an Addict

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A 1965 mugshot. Source: Salem Books via Fox News


As Cash’s music career started taking off in the late 50’s, he started a long affair with amphetamines and barbiturates and overused alcohol. As he was once quoted as saying, “I was taking the pills for a while, and then the pills started taking me.”


Amphetamines were a commonly abused drug among performers in those days who were dealing with long days of traveling and performing, and Cash was not immune to the temptation.


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Cash’s addictions contributed to the destruction of his first marriage to Vivian Liberto. Source: Rolling Stone


His addiction led to mood swings and erratic behavior, causing problems with those he worked with. His familial relationships and first marriage suffered as a result of his drug use. He was arrested multiple times, including in one attempt where he tried to smuggle over 600 amphetamine pills and 500 tranquilizers over the US-Mexico border. Cash was in and out of rehab several times over the year, with his first attempts to stay clean starting in the 70s. Eventually, he conquered his demons and remained sober. He credited religion as playing a large role in his recovery.


5. He Was Once Attacked by an Ostrich

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Cash outside of his Hendersonville, TN property in 1969. Source: Huffington Post


On his sprawling property just outside of Nashville, Tennessee, which he affectionately called the “House of Cash,” Johnny and his family had a lot going on. Not only did they make their home there, but it was the location of a museum, recording studio, and a farm. Cash enjoyed animals, particularly exotic ones, and had amassed a beautiful collection by 1981.


Part of his menagerie included a pair of ostriches. Unfortunately, the female ostrich passed away that winter when she refused to come inside out of the elements. This left her mate, Waldo, alone. Waldo had never been any trouble but grew more ornery in his loneliness. One day, Cash was walking through his compound when Waldo crouched in front of him, hissing and spreading his wings in a sign of aggression. Cash managed to get by but was concerned Waldo would continue to cause trouble, so he armed himself with a stick for his return walk.


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Photograph of an ostrich. Source: Field Ethos


Waldo recommenced his attack and charged. When Cash swung at him with the stick, he missed. The ostrich leaped into the air and kicked Cash in the stomach. The force of the kick knocked Cash to the ground. Two of his ribs broke from the kick, and three more from the impact of hitting the ground. Waldo’s large talons cut Cash’s stomach clean open, stopped only by the large belt buckle Cash was wearing.


Waldo kept coming, and Cash had no choice but to keep defending himself. He finally got a swift hit to Waldo’s legs that enabled him to get to safety and the hospital. Cash was quite embarrassed by the incident when it leaked to the local media, believing it “sounded so dumb.” After his recovery, Cash rehomed Waldo to a zoo where he would still receive proper care, but hopefully be unable to attack anyone.


6. Cash Was Arrested for Picking Flowers

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Cash was no stranger to the prison system, whether he was part of it or performing in it. Source: Johnny Cash Trail


Cash found himself on the wrong side of the law more than once, usually for charges relating to his drug or alcohol use. Although he was arrested seven times throughout his life, perhaps one of the more curious events was when he was arrested for picking flowers in Starkville, Mississippi in 1965. Though the actual charge reads that the arrest was for trespassing, Cash always maintained that the arrest was for picking flowers, as he was walking from his motel to a grocery store after a gig at Mississippi State University: “Anyway, I reached down and picked a dandelion here and daisy there as I went along…”


johnny cash trail marker
A marker was added to the Country Music Trail commemorating Cash’s time in Starkville. Source: WCBI photo via WLBT


A police officer pulled up and demanded he get into his cruiser. He was fined $36 and spent the night in jail. Cash later wrote a song about the experience entitled “Starkville City Jail.” In 2007, the city pardoned Cash in a ceremonial event on the University campus as they held the “Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival.”


7. Cash Survived a 12-Day Coma

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Cash in Jamaica in 2002. Source: Wire Image via Rolling Stone


Cash suffered a number of health problems, especially in his advanced age. In 1993, he had diabetes and contracted pneumonia numerous times. While in the hospital, complications led him to go into a coma that lasted for 12 days. Doctors feared that the 61-year-old Cash would not recover. However, he did and went on to make music for another ten years before passing away in September 2003.


8. He was an Ordained Minister

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Cash visiting Jerusalem in 1977. Source: Jerusalem Post via Tablet Magazine


Despite his hard living, Cash remained a committed Christian, going all the way back to his roots. His mother ignited a love of music in him with gospel tunes. His dedication to religion was reignited as he worked to get sober later in life. He began studying theology more enthusiastically in the late 1980s and became an ordained minister.


9. There is a Spider Named After Him

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Aphonopema johnnycashi, female (left) and male (right). Source: Hamilton et al. via Sci News


Johnny Cash has a species of tarantula named after him. In 2016, scientists wrapped up a ten-year study that evaluated and reclassified tarantula species, resulting in 14 new species that were in need of names. One was a hairy black spider that was prevalent near Folsom State Prison in California. With the tarantula’s all-black attire and location next to one of Cash’s most famous venues, scientists thought its new name was a no-brainer: Aphonopema johnnycashi. It is, so far, the only species named after a celebrity.


10. Music as a Platform

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Cash touring Wounded Knee in 1968 with descendants of massacre survivors. Source: Salon


Johnny Cash used his popular music as a platform to take a stand as an activist in relation to a number of causes. For example, he used his songs to bring attention to the inequities and mistreatment of Native Americans, releasing Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian in 1964.


He also used his prison performances to bring attention to prison reform and humanize those who were incarcerated. Cash even testified at a US Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing on prison reform in 1972 and performed benefit concerts to raise money to build a school at the Lakota’s Rosebud Reservation.

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By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”