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Ten Things You May Not Know About Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash is a legend, known to millions for his rendition of Ring of Fire, his somber take on Nine Inch Nails’Hurt, or any of other timeless country-rock music. He’s inspired legions of musicians and fans alike over the years, playing prisons, free shows, and touring around the world.
He was also a challenging personality, simultaneously fighting the status quo and battling his own personal demons.
And yet, despite the 2005 biopic Walk the Line and the treasure trove of information out there about Cash, some facts remain lesser-known. What follows is our Rock Square list of Ten Things You May Not Know about Johnny Cash.
1. Cash was successfully sued by the United States government.
In the mid-1960s, Cash would routinely drive his van (named Jesse James) into the desert to go on amphetamine binges. One day, an oil leak from the van set the Los Padres National Wildlife Refuge on fire. The government later sued him for essentially starting a wildfire, and in his autobiography he states the incident marked the first time a citizen was successfully sued by the government. When asked why he started the fire, Johnny amusingly replied "I didn't do it, my truck did, and it's dead, so you can't question it." (source)
2. Merle Haggard witnessed Johnny Cash’s San Quentin concert.
According to legend, country music icon Merle Haggard was a 22-year old inmate when Cash played his infamous prison gigs, and witnessed three of his performances at San Quentin State Prison. Later in life, Haggard would cite Cash as a main inspiration for his singing and career. (source)
3. Johnny Cash did a great Elvis Presley impression.
In some early performances, Cash would spike up his hair and sway around like Presley, paying homage to the star. This was slightly ironic, considering when young Cash approached Sun Records and Sam Phillips initially, the label was too busy promoting Presley’s music to spend any time listening to Cash and band mates Luther & Marshall Perkins.
4. Trent Reznor balked at the idea of Cash covering Hurt, at least initially.
When Rick Rubin asked Nine Inch Nails mastermind if he would allow Johnny Cash to record a cover of Hurt in the early 2000s, Reznor thought it sounded “gimmicky”. He quickly changed his mind, though, when he heard Cash’s treatment:
“It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.” (source: Alternative Press #194)
5. Cash learned about Joseph Stalin’s death before President Eisenhower.
Johnny was working in the military as a radio operator when the news broke of Stalin’s’ death in 1952 – and heard the news before practically anyone, including American President Dwight Eisenhower. (source)
6. Ring of Fire wasn’t an original Johnny Cash composition.
Perhaps surprisingly to the most casual of Cash fans, Ring of Fire, arguably one of his biggest songs that he ever released, was a cover. It was originally written by his wife, June Carter Cash, and Merle Kilgore before being released on Johnny’s 1963 album Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash.
7. He may have been tough, but Cash did have a few fears.
Despite his seemingly indestructible demeanor and sense of self-confidence, Johnny Cash did have a few things that he was afraid of – he was both fearful of snakes and of flying.
8. He never wore anything other than all-black for a live performance.
Many associate Johnny Cash with his black-on-black attire, and with good reason – he really never wore anything else when he played. As he once told Larry King, “I’ve never done a concert in anything but black. You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there.” (source)
9. Cash is in rare company, in three different major Hall of Fames.
Due to his legendary career, Johnny Cash was inducted into three separate Hall of Fames: the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. His company as inductees in all three areHank Williams Sr., Bob Wills, Jimmy Rodgers, and Bill Monroe – not too shabby!
10. In the Cash biopic Walk the Line, the band had to adapt to star Joaquin Phoenix’s vocal range.
According to the film’s director, star Joaquin Phoenix (who was hand-selected by Cash himself and had to learn to sing and play guitar for the role) couldn’t hit the right key vocally, so the band changed Cash’s compositions to a different key to accommodate his range. However, shortly before filming began, Phoenix’ voice dropped to Cash’s normal range, forcing the band to learn the songs in their original key yet again.
So there you have it, 10 facts about Johnny Cash that you may not already know. As always, let us know if we’re leaving any fun facts out, as Cash was an icon with a plethora of personality quirks that make him truly unique.
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