By Colin Woodward
Yesterday marked the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Johnny Cash. Despite the fact that he’s been dead for more than a decade, and historians have written much about him since then, Cash continues to be the subject of misunderstanding. Here are a few handy things to know about the man from Arkansas.
1. He wasn’t always the Man in Black. Yes, black became Cash’s trademark. But that was later in his career. For years, Cash dressed in different colors. Sometimes red, sometimes white, and yes, sometimes black. Just look at the album colors from his early days, such as Song of Our Soil. Cash definitely is not wearing black. Cash didn’t become synonymous with black suits until the 1970s, when he famously called himself the Man in Black in a song of the same name. He also called his first memoir, published in the mid-70s, Man in Black. But for years Cash was a man of many styles, musically and fashion-wise.
2. Cash wasn’t a sharecropper. Cash was raised on farms in Arkansas. But his family was not made up of sharecroppers. Sharecroppers were the lowest of the low in the agrarian South. They were people who did not own their own farms and in many cases did not own a home. Many were itinerant workers drifting from town to town to find work. Most of what they ended up harvesting was given back to the person who owned the land. To get through the season, sharecroppers often were extended credit, which they could not pay back, which kept them in a constant state of debt–much like today’s payday loan sharks preying on the lowerclasses.
In Dyess, where Cash spent most of his young life, his father Ray was paying off his own farm. His house was built by the government, but it was not free. Ray Cash wasn’t rich by any means, but he was not a sharecropper. Ray might have done some sharecropping in Kingsland, Arkansas–where he and Johnny were born–in the 1920s. But Ray had many jobs. Certainly by the time he moved to Dyess in 1935, he was not a sharecropper. Nor was Johnny at any time. Johnny, in fact, hated farm work and couldn’t wait to leave his hometown and the cotton fields behind him.
3. Johnny Cash was not dirt poor. Yes, the Cashes were, by today’s standards, poor people. The Dyess house, at its most crowded, was a place where a family of nine lived in three bedrooms. Young Johnny did not have electricity or running water growing up. But that was not uncommon in the depression era South (let alone Arkansas), nor was a lack of indoor plumbing unheard of in other parts of the country–North or South–well into the postwar period.
The Cashes were middling farmers who enjoyed such luxuries as a battery powered radio and a stand-up piano. Johnny was never starving or short of clothing. He and his family suffered from no major illnesses. His town was literally brand new, and the soil the Cashes worked was some of the best farm land in the world. Johnny received a decent public high school education, and his family had a car before he left home in 1950. Johnny Cash had it about as good as you could have it in the rural Arkansas of his time.
4. Johnny was not Native American. For a long time, Cash told people he had Indian blood in him. And if you didn’t know better, a glance at the cover of his 1964 album Bitter Tears would convince you that Cash was Indian. But he wasn’t. It was one of the many tall tales Cash told throughout his life. It might have been based on what he thought was truth, but there’s no factual basis for what he believed. Being Indian gave Cash mystique and credibility. But Cash was no more Native American than Elvis was. And that is to say, not at all.
5. Johnny didn’t play guitar much until he was in the Air Force. After Cash became a legend, some of his friends and neighbors back home in Arkansas liked to tell stories about Cash playing guitar a lot in Dyess. But he didn’t, for the simply reason he didn’t have a guitar then. Cash might’ve messed around with a guitar a bit growing up, but he didn’t own one, and he wasn’t passionate about playing music until the 1950s. He certainly wasn’t walking around his hometown all the time with a guitar slung over his back.
6. Cash did not pay heavy dues. Johnny was a man blessed with a distinctive voice and sound and a genius for writing great songs. While his background was humble, his rise to fame was amazingly quick. In the summer of 1954, just a few months after arriving back in the States from Germany (where he served in the Air Force for four years), he cut his first song at Sun Records. That song was “Hey Porter,” which wasn’t released until the next year. It was a hit. Others followed.
Sure, Cash played many small town venues in the early days. But that was–and is–standard for musicians. Cash was talented, but also very, very lucky. Few singers today, after all, get to share the bill with Elvis or Carl Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis or in some cases, all three. Cash had the advantage of making music at a time when the economy was booming, people were literally wild about rock and roll, and a small label such as Sun could have national impact. It was a remarkable time in American music. It doesn’t exist anymore. Cash was fortunate to live in the golden age of the young American white male musician. His road to success was a short one, much shorter than that of the Beatles.
By 1958, Cash was at Columbia Records, a much bigger and wealthier label than Sun. Johnny stayed there for 28 years. How many musicians today cut their first record in three months, have it be a hit, then sign to a major label a couple years later? Very, very few.
7. Johnny never completely sobered up. Cash famously sought help for his drug addiction in the fall of 1967. With the help of June Carter–his lover but not yet wife–and the Nashville doctor Nat Winston, Cash sobered up. A bit. Sort of.
Had Cash not gotten help, he probably would have died from drug related health problems or some act of self-destruction, such as a car wreck. Cash quickly improved. But he was not free of addiction. He never was. By the time of his Folsom concert, recorded in January 1968, Cash was looking and feeling better. But he was still popping pills.
Cash’s bass player, Marshall Grant, said Cash didn’t sober up for real until the birth of John Carter Cash in 1970. But by the late-70s, Cash was taking pills again.
To put an exclamation point on his attempt at sobriety in late-1967, Cash spun a tale about him–strung out and in despair–crawling into Nickajack Cave in Tennessee to die. Johnny might have been suicidal at the time. But the cave story is one of many Cash myths. At the time the story supposedly happened, the cave was under water. And later versions of the story were clearly embellished, if not outright fairy tales. The cave story, nevertheless, serves as a powerful symbol: Cash emerges from darkness into the light. He emerges from a horrible drug addiction reborn.
By the 1980s, Cash was in and out of rehab. He also underwent several major surgeries for health problems. Cash died in 2003 at the relatively young age of 71. But he lived far longer than he probably should have. He was lucky to have endured an epic drug addiction and the many near fatal accidents that came with it.
8. Cash wasn’t a walking contradiction: Cash has often been called a man of contradictions. It’s not clear whether or not his friend Kris Kristofferson meant Cash when he wrote in his song “The Pilgrim” of a man “partly truth, partly fiction,” a “walking contradiction.” The song might’ve been about Kristofferson himself, or John Lennon, or Dylan, or any number of people. True, Cash often did things that seemed contradictory. A man of faith who was also a junky who trashed hotel rooms? That doesn’t seem right!
Yes, Cash’s behavior often contradicted his words. But Cash was consistent about many things. He always spoke out for prisoners, Native Americans, and the downtrodden. Christianity was always a part of his life. As were drugs. He told the truth, he lied. He was a family man who cheated on his wife. He was compassionate and abusive.
Cash was a man of contradictions, perhaps, but so are all of us. The reason he could connect with people is because they saw themselves in him and loved him despite his shortcomings.
9. Nashville was never really Cash’s town. Cash is buried in Hendersonville, a suburb just north of Nashville. Johnny loved his Hendersonville mansion, which became a hang out for many musicians and celebrities. But Johnny had no roots in Tennessee, and he had a love/hate relationship with Music City. Cash was born in Arkansas and rose to fame in Memphis. His move to Nashville in the late-60s was mostly one of necessity. When Cash had his comeback in the 1990s courtesy of Rick Rubin, it began in California, where Cash cut American Recordings.
For a while, Cash hated Nashville, and it hated him. In the 1960s, he was banned for a while by the oh-so-traditional Opry following a night when a stoned Cash angrily kicked out stage lights at the Ryman. Nashville and the Man in Balck eventually made up. Cash later shot his TV show in Nashville. But Nashville never really knew what to do with him.
For years, Cash moved around. As a musician, he went first to Memphis, then California. His settling in Nashville might seem obvious or inevitable, but it was a move done out of practicality and reluctance. Cash would’ve been happy to have lived somewhere else. And it might have been–God forbid!–Branson, Missouri, had things not gone different in the 1990s.
In 2007, Cash’s home in Hendersonville burned down. It is a fitting metaphor. Cash’s greatest legacy probably doesn’t belong in Tennessee. The Johnny Cash Museum is in Nashville today. But it could just as easily have been built in Memphis or Little Rock. In fact, as far as structures go, the restored Dyess house–finished in 2014–might be Cash’s most lasting legacy.
10. An authentic legend? In an era of “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” and “reality” TV, we should examine historical figures with extreme care and caution through an analytical lens. Cash had authenticity. He was also a man who liked to tell stories. Many of them embellished at best and false at worst. Unfortunately for historians, Cash left a relatively thin paper trail. Much of what he did is shrouded in myth. Usually, however, the real story is more interesting than the legend.