Johnny Cash: True Stories Of The Wildman In Black

Music | February 1, 2019

Johnny Cash at the Hammersmith Odeon, London, 1966. (Getty/Photo by Jan Olofsson/Redferns)

Even among rough-and-tumble country singers, few lived a life as eventful as Johnny Cash. True stories of the wild "Man in Black" are plentiful -- and of course, plenty of half-truths and myths will turn up as well. Cash knew it all: drug abuse, alcohol abuse, accidents, intentional property damage, fire, and combat with large flightless birds. We might call it "rock star" behavior, but this outlaw country legend taught some of those rockers all the tricks they knew. There's no need for embellishment when it comes to Johnny Cash, the true stories are all you need -- like the man himself, they're raw and straightforward, and that's why they're so good.

It’s easy to mythologize someone like Johnny Cash – he’s got an intense gaze, and he’s draped in all black like a cowboy from hell. The dude came off as the coolest of characters, even though he was a train wreck. Even if you know minor trivia about the Man in Black, there's plenty you don't know. From the car crashes, to the overdoses, to the forest fires, Cash was a man who lived life to the fullest and felt the full repercussions of his actions. His story is fascinating, and it’s shocking that he lived as long as he did. 

He Was The First American To Receive The News Of Stalin’s Death

While based in Landsberg, West Germany as a part of the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile of the U.S. Air Force Security, Service Johnny Cash was a Staff Sergeant who worked regularly as a Morse Code operator. According to his own account, Cash was incredibly gifted at hearing Morse code and deciphering it quickly, and he was made the Air Force’s go-to guy. At the time, Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin was in poor health and the U.S. government was doing everything they could to keep tabs on him.

While intercepting Morse Code on March 5th, 1953, Cash took down a coded message from the Soviets stating that Stalin had passed away. The story gets a little muddy here -- claims that he was the first American to "hear" of Stalin's death raise the obvious question: Did Johnny Cash speak Russian? And there's no evidence that he did. In Cash: The Autobiography, Cash chooses his words carefully

I was who they called when the hardest jobs came up. I copied the first news of Stalin’s death.

For a Morse code operator, "copying" means taking down the transmitted message accurately; it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with comprehension. It seems plausible that Cash received, by ear, the code that contained the news of Stalin's death, so in a way he was the first to "hear" it. But he would not have understood what he had heard until it had been translated (and perhaps decrypted as well). 

Johnny Cash meets President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Source: National Archives

Johnny Cash Started A Wildfire

Cash spent much of the '60s high out of his mind on booze and painkillers, and despite destroying nearly everything he came in contact with, he always managed to escape his predicaments relatively unscathed. But in June 1965 his camper, "Jesse James" (stay tuned for more about it), caught fire while he was fishing in Los Padres National Forest with his nephew Damon Fielder. This drug induced accident ended up costing him a lot of his personal income. The fire destroyed hundreds of acres of farmland and 49 endangered condors.

After the fire was vanquished Cash claimed that a spark from the exhaust must have started the blaze, but his nephew believes that Cash made a small fire but was so high that he forgot to put it out. Cash was sued by the U.S. government hundreds of thousands of dollars - he settled for $82,001 - and in a statement to the court he said, “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards.”

Johnny Cash with Richard Nixon in the White House, 1972. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He Named His Drug Camper 'Jesse James'

When Cash needed to escape from life, he and his first wife Vivian would get in his camper and take off to the desert where he would go on week long amphetamine binges. Cash named the camper “Jesse James” after the outlaw, and he gave it a paint job to match his personal aesthetic. 

Rather than just tint the windows, the singer took a can of black spray paint and covered them in a thick sludge that blocked out all the light. He said the reason for the paint was two-fold: one one hand he wanted to sleep at all hours, and on the other hand he “just liked to spray-paint things black.” You can’t argue with that kind of logic. 

Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, 1977. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He Gave Peter La Farge Way Too Much Thorazine

Peter La Farge was a singer-songwriter who palled around with Bob Dylan and spent much his time in the Greenwich Village scene jamming out his folkie tunes at beatnik coffee shops. Regardless of what he was used to smoking or taking, the day he met Johnny Cash almost killed him. 

After Cash played a terrible performance at Carnegie Hall, he met up with La Farge at the Gaslight, a famous folkie coffee shop that closed in 1971, and the two engaged in an evening of popping Thorazine. According to Cash, he gave the singer songwriter so much of the anti-anxiety medicine that he slept for “three or four days.”

Johnny Cash in 1977. Source: Wikimedia Commons

An Ostrich Beat Him Up

People like to think of Johnny Cash as the number one bad ass. A man in black who could only be put down by death, but in 1981 he got into a fight with an ostrich that landed him in the hospital. Cash wrote in his autobiography that while he was trying to put his ostriches in the barn during a horrible winter on his Hendersonville, Tennessee estate, a male ostrich straight up tried to kill him.

The ostrich had been giving Cash attitude, and Cash wasn't about to take that from a bird. He armed himself with a stick, and then things got brutal. He writes:

When I came back I was carrying a good stout six-foot stick, and I was prepared to use it. And sure enough, there he was on the trail in front of me, doing his thing. When he started moving toward me I went on the offensive, taking a good hard swipe at him. I missed. He wasn’t there. He was in the air, and a split second later he was on his way down again, with that big toe of his, larger than my size-thirteen shoe, extended toward my stomach. He made contact—I’m sure there was never any question he wouldn’t—and frankly, I got off lightly. All he did was break my two lower ribs and rip my stomach open down to my belt, If the belt hadn’t been good and strong, with a solid belt buckle, he’d have spilled my guts exactly the way he meant to.

Sony Columbia Legacy

A Pack Of Valium Dissolved In His Body

In 1983, Cash went into the hospital for a planned surgery, having a good bit of his intestines, his duodenum and parts of his spleen removed. Worried that he might not have enough pain killers (in a hospital?), he snuck in his own Valium and hid it behind the TV set in his room. After the surgery he stashed the Valium in the dressing of his wound in order to have it within reach if he needed it. It turned out to be one of the worst places he could have hid them because the pills dissolved into his wound. As explained in Johnny Cash: The Biography, the mixture of Valium and the morphine he'd been given after surgery knocked him out for two days, and when he finally woke up he was a ranting, hallucinating mess.

Promotional photo of Johnny Cash during the Sun years. Source: Wikimedia Commons

After He Was Fired From The Grand Ole Opry He Crashed June Carter’s Car

At an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in 1965, Cash became so incensed during his performance that he smashed out the stage’s floodlights with a microphone stand. Understandably, Cash was barred from performing at the Opry ever again (he returned decades later). However, Cash says that he used the Opry’s decision “as an excuse to really get wild and wound up in the hospital with my third time I broke my nose."

He ended up earning his injury by driving June Carter’s Cadillac (at the time she was his mistress) into telephone pole and completely trashing it. 

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Source: Sony Columbia Legacy

He Smashed Down A Motel Wall

According to Johnny Western, a guitarist who started hanging around Cash in 1958, the singer found himself staying in a motel one night next to Carl Perkins, and rather than just leaving his room and walking over to see Perkins he smashed the wall down with a chair. Western said:

When Johnny was really pilled up once, in one big motel, Carl Perkins was staying in the next room, but there was no dividing door between the rooms, so he took a metal chair and smashed the wall down so they could walk back and forth. That cost a couple of thousand dollars. We were doing stuff that Mick Jagger and those guys picked up on later on. It was just that kind of a lifestyle.

Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. Sony Columbia Legacy

He Was Arrested In El Paso For Smuggling Drugs

In 1965, Johnny Cash went south of the border to Mexico so he could take care of his pill habit. He, like so many ill informed amateur drug mules, believed that he could just sneak a bunch of pills across the border by being cool. Unfortunately being cool didn’t work at all. After going to Juarez with his band’s money, Cash found himself with a healthy amount of medication on his body. 

When he was stopped by agents who knew exactly who he was and what he was doing he was busted with 669 tabs of dexedrine and 475 tranquilizers. He said that the agents were disappointed because they were hoping he had heroin on him. 

Johnny Cash outside his house, 1969. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He Drove A Tractor Into The Lake Behind His House

There are plenty of moments from Cash’s life that appear in the biopic Walk The Line that feel a little too good to be true. However, prior to meeting with a drug counselor to set his life straight in the late ‘60s, Cash got upset, got loaded, and drove his tractor straight into Old Hickory Lake. 

After this act out he finally tried to get clean, unfortunately this detox didn’t work and the decades to follow would see the man in black getting in deep with pills all over again. Cash's lake front property burned down decades later, and the lot went up for sale in 2016. 

Sony Columbia Legacy

He Lost A Car While On A Drug Binge

When you’re on a multi-day pill bender it’s hard to remember where you put things: your wallet, your sunglasses, a car that you stole from one of your friends. According to Cash’s running buddy Johnny Western you never knew what was going to happen when the singer started getting pilled out:

He would just get completely out of it. He would end up in hotels and motels back in the hills someplace. One time, he borrowed my brand new Cadillac and he was so far out of it on pills, he lost it in Hollywood. He called me sheepishly when he sobered up and said, ‘Johnny, I lost your car. I was just going to borrow it for two or three hours and I think I left it down at the Farmer’s Market’ – this place that was open 24 hours a day – ‘but I can’t remember. Right now I’m in a motel on the other side of Beverly Hills and I don’t know how I got here. I guess I got a cab.’ He was just really out of it at that time.

Sony Columbia Legacy

He Backed A Tour Bus Into A Swimming Pool

According to Billy Walker, the musical director of Cash’s TV show, the singer was off his head on drugs throughout the ‘80s. For the most part he held himself together, but Walker told Uncut about a time when Cash was on an all night party with Marty Stuart and gave some Floridians a real surprise:

A lot of ridiculous things happened, like him and Marty Stuart backed a bus into a swimming pool in Florida going out to get a cup of coffee at four o’clock in the morning. He burnt a lot of cars up. A lot of accidents happened around him. But he was a sweet guy, man.

Sony Columbia Legacy

A Third Of His Stomach Had To Be Removed

After decades of drug and alcohol abuse Cash was worse for the wear to say the least. According to his bass player Jimmy Tittle, when Cash saw friends like Waylon Jennings and Larry Gatlin getting sober he tried to clean up his act, but it was hard. One breaking point was when doctors told Cash that they had to operate on him. Tittle told Uncut:

It was a real job staying sober, and none of us actually stayed sober for very long. When you went back to using, it was never the same: you always had the guilt. And it had worn his body out. That’s the time he went in and he had a lot of his stomach removed, from ulcers, from taking so many drugs – even Percodan and aspirin. He went from there straight to the Betty Ford Center. That’s when we did a family intervention. When he checked out the hospital in Nashville, they said, ‘Look, we just removed a third of your stomach, it had holes in it from your drug use, you’re gonna get sober or we’re all abandoning ship.’ And he went out to California and he got better. 

Sony Columbia Legacy

He Got His Start As A Door To Door Salesman

It’s hard to imagine Johnny Cash’s booming voice on the other side of a front door asking you to buy a set of steak knives, but according to Cash that’s exactly what he had to do when he finished his Air Force service and returned to civilian life in 1954. Cash didn’t stick with the salesman gig for long, he felt like he was lying to people in order to get them to buy things they didn’t need, and that didn’t sit well with him. He said:

I used to worry about people puttin' themselves into debt. I'd say, 'You don't want any of this, do you?' They'd say, 'Hold on there, what are you selling?'

Sony Columbia Legacy

He Was The Man In Black With A Green Thumb

Much of Cash’s body of work is about death and destruction, be it personal or social, but when he was off the road he liked to do a little gardening. in fact, he was so good at it that he had a minor farm at his home. Cash told an interviewer"I raise beans, peas, okra, cabbage, squash. I got an orchard with Jonathan and Bartlett pears, Winesip apples, and I'll have Chinese chestnuts and paper-shell pecans." 

The orchard was planted where Roy Orbison's house had stood before it burned down in 1968. The fire killed two of Orbison's sons; Cash's agricultural activities involved a promise he made to his former neighbor to maintain life on a site that had seen such tragedy.

'Mama' Cass Elliott and Johnny Cash, 1969. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He Stole His Band’s Money To Buy Pills

When Cash was in the depths of his drug addiction he had it bad. Things were so dire that at one point on tour he stole all of the band’s money that was meant to be deposited in the bank and flew to El Paso in order to score drugs. Cash said that from El Paso he had a cab driver take him to a Juárez bar and score pills for him. 

In Man in Black, his 1975 autobiography, Cash wrote: "I slid down a little lower in the back seat each time someone looked my way. I had never done it this way before."

Cash would be arrested at the end of the trip, and somehow his band stuck with him through this royal breach of trust. 

Johnny Cash and his son, 1975. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cash’s Band Half-Expected Him To Die At Any Time

After being on the road with Cash for a while, his backing band got used to seeing their frontman passed out, puking, or in an otherwise horrific state. They were so nonchalant about the singer’s drug use that they stopped freaking out when he would overdose and tended to just let him sleep it off. 

Luther Perkins, guitarist for Cash’s group, allegedly came up with this simple guideline: “Let him sleep for 24 hours. If he wakes up, he's alive, if he doesn't, he's dead." You know you’re in a bad spot when your friends are joking about whether you’re alive or not. 

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He Was Really Close Friends With Billy Graham

Even though it seems like they’d be an unlikely pairing, Johnny Cash was very good friends with televangelist Billy Graham. Both men were deeply religious, and Cash says that Graham helped him come to terms with his volatile past while trying to maintain some semblance of Christianity. The two first met in 1969 when Cash invited Graham to his home for dinner, and from then on the two of them were thick as thieves.

Bill Miller, owner of the Johnny Cash Museum said that Graham reached out to Cash so he could look cool in front of his son:

In the late '60s his son, Franklin Graham, was sort of rebellious, and Johnny Cash was the hottest act in the world. Billy sought him out in an attempt to be cool and relevant to his son, and it resulted in a lifelong friendship.

Cash wrote of Graham:

I've always been able to share my secrets and problems with Billy, and I've benefited greatly from his support and advice. Even during my worst times, when I've fallen back into using pills of one sort or another, he's maintained his friendship with me and given me his ear and advice, always based solidly on the Bible. He's never pressed me when I've been in trouble; he's waited for me to reveal myself, and then he's helped me as much as we can.


Cash Was About To Die While Filming The 'Hurt' Video

Johnny Cash’s final albums with Rick Rubin are some of the most grim, dire country tracks that have ever been recorded; they’re also a major part of one of the greatest comebacks in music history. The gem in these recordings is his cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt,” a song that’s given even more pathos by being uttered in Cash’s gravelly baritone. By the time the song was out, Cash was dying, but director Mark Romanek said that he needed to make a video, and he offered to direct it for free.

Initial plans to shoot the video in Tennessee were scrapped when Cash refused to deal with the cold, so Romanek took a trip to Nashville and visited the House of Cash, a long closed museum dedicated to the singer. Romanek told the Independent

It had been closed for a long time. The place was in such a state of dereliction. That’s when I got the idea that maybe we could be extremely candid about the state of Johnny’s health - as candid as Johnny has always been in his songs.

The video is a monument to Cash’s final days, his legacy, and the way that memory fades. Johnny Cash died seven months after it was released. 

Tags: 1970s Country Music | Country Music | Drugs | Johnny Cash | Music In The 1950s | Music In The 1960s | Rare Facts And Stories About History

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.