Johnny Cash: True Stories Of The Wildman In Black

By Jacob Shelton


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).