18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash

Larry Holzwarth - September 21, 2018

He was a mass of contradictions. Renowned around the world as the Man in Black he wrote a religious novel entitled Man in White. He opened for Christian revivals hosted by the Reverend Billy Graham while high on amphetamines. He performed in prisons in the United States and Scandinavia, where he took requests from his audiences, but when performing at the White House he refused to play the songs requested by President Richard Nixon, claiming that he didn’t know the numbers which the president asked him to play. He was inducted into the Halls of Fame for Country Music, Gospel Music, and Rock and Roll, an indication of the broad appeal he had for fans, and the wide range of his musical performances and recordings.

Johnny Cash performed on stage as a musician, in film as a dramatic actor, and on television as the host of variety shows and specials. His name, at least in childhood, was but initials; he was simply J. R. Cash until the Air Force informed him that he could not enlist without a Christian name, so it became John. He gained fame by introducing himself by saying, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”. He had several terms in rehab facilities, for alcohol and drugs, run-ins with the law, and a thirty-five year marriage with his second wife, June Carter Cash. He recorded with artists including Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Lee Lewis, Krist Novoselic, Tom Petty, and Mick Fleetwood, to name just a very few. He was on friendly terms with American presidents from Nixon to George W. Bush, including a close friendship with Jimmy Carter.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, birthplace of the careers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Scotty Moore, and many other musicians who changed America. Library of Congress

He was and is an American legend. Say hello to Johnny Cash.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
The New Deal created farm programs and experimental techniques intended to help farmers and struggling families, including farm colonies. FDR Presidential Library

1. He grew up in a New Deal colony in Arkansas

During the Great Depression, efforts by the Roosevelt administration to alleviate agricultural poverty included the creation of colonies to provide economic relief to farmers and farmworkers. Dyess, Arkansas was one such colony. J. R. Cash was three years of age when his family sought help by relocating to the community. The colony was established to allow poor families to work land owned by the state, with the possibility of gaining ownership of the land if they farmed it successfully. Besides the grinding poverty which forced all of his siblings to work the land, the weather was an enemy during the years of the depression, twice flooding the cotton fields destroying the crops. J. R. began working the fields at the age of five.

J. R. was fourth in line of seven siblings, closest to his immediate elder, his brother Jack. Jack was killed when he fell into a table saw, which in that day and time had an unprotected blade, at the age of fifteen in May 1944. Jack survived for an agonized week before he died, and told the young J. R. of seeing angels and Heaven, which had a profound effect on the young Cash. For the rest of his life Cash spoke of looking forward to seeing Jack in heaven. His family was deeply religious, and J. R. was raised in the Christian denomination of Southern Baptist. Taught guitar by his mother and through childhood friends, J. R. was writing his own songs at the age of twelve, heavily influenced by the gospel music of his church and the sounds he heard on radio, including the Irish folk music performed by Dennis Day on the Jack Benny Show.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash in a pensive pose taken in 1969, during a time when he was deliberately curtailing his drug and alcohol intake. Look Magazine

2. He was a cryptographer for the Air Force during the cold war

J. R. Cash enlisted in the United States Air Force in July 1950, at which point, informed by the Air Force that he couldn’t sign up using only initials as a first name, he became John R. Cash. Cash took his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas, followed by training at nearby Brooks Air Force Base before deploying to West Germany. While in training he met and fell in love with Vivian Liberto and during his overseas deployment he courted her in letters, to which she responded in kind. He reached the rank of staff sergeant during his four years of service and upon receiving his honorable discharge in 1954 he returned to Texas and marriage to Vivian in San Antonio.

While stationed at Landsberg Air Force Base in Germany Johnny started his first band, the Landsberg Barbarians. It was at Landsberg where he saw a film one evening entitled Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, a film noir production of what became known as B movies in the United States. Cash used the film as the inspiration to write what would become one of his signature songs, Folsom Prison Blues. After Cash returned to Texas and married Vivian, he moved his family to Memphis, where he found work as an appliance salesmen, though he continued to play guitar with friends, as he had with the Barbarians while in Germany. Johnny Cash also took classes preparing him to be a radio announcer, using his distinctive baritone voice to support his growing family

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Sam Phillips’s Sun Records launched the careers of (from left) Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, not to mention the absent from this photograph Elvis Presley. CBS Televisiom

3. The man who discovered Elvis also discovered Johnny Cash

Cash began playing regularly with a duo who called themselves the Tennessee Two, Marshall Grant (bass) and Luther Perkins (guitar), developing a style which was later called rockabilly. In 1954 Cash auditioned for Sam Phillips, singing in the gospel style with which he was most comfortable, but when Phillips told him that his studio, Sun Records, was no longer interested in recording gospel music, Cash performed some of his newer rockabilly numbers. Cash recorded Hey, Porter in September 1954. Its B side was Cry, Cry, Cry. Released in May of the following year, the B side was the more popular of the record, and was responsible for its reaching number 14 on the charts, selling over 100,000 copies.

In July, 1955, Johnny returned to Sun Studios to record the song he had written in Germany, Folsom Prison Blues. The song reached the top five in the country charts in early 1956. He would go on to record the song again many times throughout his career, often in live performances, and it became the song with which he opened most of his concerts. The original recording had no drums, a piece of paper slipped under Cash’s guitar strings replicated the sound of a snare as Johnny strummed the chords of the song. “I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that’s what came to mind”, Cash later said of his famous line about shooting a man in Reno, “just to watch him die”.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash and his second wife, June Carter, in a photo which appeared in Look Magazine in 1969. Library of Congress

4. His first wife blamed drugs and June Carter for destroying their marriage

In the 2005 biopic I Walk the Line, Johnny Cash was depicted by Joaquin Phoenix as being relentless in his pursuit of June Carter, who helps him overcome his addiction to drugs and alcohol. According to his first wife the opposite was true. Vivian Liberto married Johnny Cash in 1954 and together they had four daughters, Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. In 2007, Vivian’s story was published in I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny, in which she described June Carter as pursuing Johnny for years, as well as supplying him with the amphetamines to which he was addicted. According to Vivian’s account, June was addicted to amphetamines herself. Vivian claimed that June once told her, “Vivian, he will be mine.”

Vivian remarried after her divorce from Johnny Cash became final in 1967, and died in 2005 before her manuscript was published. In her book she expressed regrets for not having worked harder to save her marriage to the star, and her assertions regarding the threat presented by June Carter have been supported by her daughters in subsequent interviews. Johnny and June had a son together, John Carter Cash, who confirmed Vivian’s description of June as a drug user in a book in 2007, later telling Reuters, “She maintained strong control of her addiction”. Johnny Cash entered rehab for drugs and alcohol several times during his life, though June Carter Cash did not.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Cash alternated between presenting a bad boy image and a deeply religious one throughout his career, succeeding in both. Wikimedia

5. Johnny Cash started a forest fire which burned 508 acres of California woodlands

In June 1965, while on a fishing trip with Damon Fielder in Los Podres National Forest, Cash started a fire which eventually burned more than five hundred acres and which he claimed was an accident, caused by a defective muffler on his camper truck. Fielder, Cash’s nephew, later said he believed the cause was a camp fire which Cash was too drunk or drugged to realize was out of control. In court Cash claimed that he tried to extinguish the fire by beating out the flames with his jacket, but that it spread too quickly for him to contain. Although there were claims that up to four dozen endangered California condors were killed in the fire, the US Fish and Wildlife Service denied any of the birds were lost to the flames, though they may have been driven away.

Cash was prosecuted for starting the fire and was sued by the federal government to recover the cost of fighting the fire, which was covered by his insurance companies. He claimed to have been fined $125,000, which was later reduced to $82,000. Cash was defiant in court, claiming that when he was asked if he had started the fire he replied, “No, my truck did, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it.” The fire and his defiant attitude towards the authorities did much to contribute to his reputation as an outlaw, and not until much later would some of the officials involved, as did Cash himself, attribute the accident to the excessive alcohol and drug consumption which he was involved in at the time.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash performing at San Quentin Prison in 1969, during a period in which his career was rejuvenated by his live albums. Wikimedia

6. He was arrested for drug possession with over 1,000 pills and capsules in his guitar case

In October of 1965, Cash was returning from Juarez, Mexico when he was arrested in El Paso and charged with transporting more than 1,000 pep pills and tranquilizers. He spent one night in the El Paso jail before being released on bond. At his court hearing in December he entered a guilty plea to having had in his possession 668 dexadrin and 475 Equanil, which because they were prescription was a misdemeanor, with the charges of smuggling them dropped. Cash still faced a potential sentence of one year in prison, but after the guilty plea was entered sentencing was postponed until March of the following year. At that time Cash was fined $1,000 and sentenced to 30 days in jail, which was suspended.

Twenty years later a formed El Paso Sheriff’s Deputy was convicted of attempted extortion for threatening to provide copies of the arrest records and Cash’s mug shot to various magazines. The former deputy did not demand a specific amount of money from the star, instead providing instructions for how to enter negotiations. When Cash reported the attempted extortion the records regarding his arrest, including his fingerprints, were found to be missing. The former deputy was sentenced to a fine, five years of probation, and community service after pleading guilty to the attempted blackmail in February 1985. He had not been on the Sheriff’s staff when Cash was arrested, and had stolen the records sometime prior to 1983.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Tennessee, homeland of David Crockett and Andrew Jackson, instead saw its musical heritage celebrated in its 2002 state quarter. Wikimedia

7. The Tennessee Two and the Tennessee Three

When Johnny Cash moved to Memphis his older brother Roy introduced him to Luther Perkins, Marshal Grant, and Red Kernodle, all of whom worked at Roy’s automobile dealership. The three often played their guitars together at the dealership and Johnny was soon playing with them in the evenings. After they decided to form a working band, Grant moved to upright bass and Perkins added an electric guitar. Kernodle shifted to steel guitar. When they decided to audition for Sam Phillips, Kernodle left the group, and though they called themselves the Tennessee Three, Phillips suggested they go by Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. They remained together using that name when Johnny Cash left Sun records and signed with Columbia, becoming Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three when drummer W. S. Holland joined them in 1960.

In 1968 Luther Perkins died in a fire, started when he fell asleep while smoking. He was replaced with Bob Wootton, and the group recorded an album dedicated to Perkins, an instrumental record they called The Tennessee Three: The Sound Behind Johnny Cash in 1971. The group remained the core of Cash’s sound through the 1970s, despite Columbia requiring Cash to record an album in 1975 using session musicians, which did not perform well in terms of sales. In 1980 Cash fired Grant, and discontinued using the name, adding other performers and renaming his band The Great Eighties Eight. In 1989 he reorganized and renamed the band The Johnny Cash Show Band, including his son John Carter Cash on rhythm guitar.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash publicity photo from his early career, when he was still with Sun Records. Sun Records

8. Johnny Cash was sued for embezzlement by his former band member

According to Marshal Grant, Johnny Cash controlled his drug intake after 1967, and stopped using amphetamines completely following John Carter’s birth. In the mid-to-late 1970s Johnny Cash once again slid into heavy use of amphetamines and tranquilizers, which led to problems with his bass player. When Luther Perkins died, his daughters approached Cash for funds which had been set aside for his retirement, only to find that the funds were gone. Cash accused Grant of embezzling the funds, and fired him. In fact, funds which had also been set aside for Grant’s retirement were likewise missing, and the Perkins’s and Grant sued Johnny for the missing money.

Both lawsuits were settled out of court, for an undisclosed amount, and Grant was confident that he had cleared his name, but the acrimony remained between the two men for some time. Although he settled the lawsuits, Johnny never retracted the accusation. At one point Cash denied that there had ever been a formal partnership, but Grant had retained records and documents which clearly established that there had, and the roles of each member of the partnership. After Grant left the Cash organization he worked as a tour manager for the Statler Brothers, and he and Johnny reconciled their differences in 1997. Grant died in 2011 at the age of 83.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash performing before an audience of inmates in the late 1960s. Billboard

9. He was sued for copyright infringement over Folsom Prison Blues

Johnny Cash wrote Folsom Prison Blues while in Germany after watching a movie. Two years earlier an experimental album which consisted of seven radio plays, each an event on a train journey, was released entitled Seven Dreams. The journey passes through Crescent City, where a character hears a woman singing a song entitled Crescent City Blues. Though slower in tempo than Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, the melody is virtually the same and some lines from the lyrics are identical, including, “I hear the train a coming/It’s rollin’ round the bend”. Crescent City Blues was written by composer Gordon Jenkins and sung on the record by his wife, Beverly Mahr.

When Cash’s song became a hit again in 1968, Jenkins sued for copyright infringement and a percentage of the royalties. The similarities were so clear that Cash didn’t attempt to deny that he had lifted part of the song, explaining that at the time it was written he had no intention of embarking on a recording career. He also explained that he had informed Sam Phillips of the contribution to his composition from Crescent City Blues and that the Sun Records owner had told him not to worry about it, and no acknowledgment was made of the parts plagiarized from Jenkins’ work. Cash paid Jenkins a settlement of about $75,000 to settle the infringement suit.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
The least well known of the $1 million quartet was Jerry Lee Lewis, who dominate the sound during their impromptu recording session. Wikimedia

10. He was one fourth of the Million Dollar Quartet in December 1956

On December 4, 1956, Carl Perkins, fresh off his hit song Blue Suede Shoes, went into Sun Studios in Memphis to record a follow up record. Sam Phillips wanted to broaden the sound, and for the session brought in a relatively unknown piano player named Jerry Lee Lewis. While the session was underway Elvis Presley dropped in to say hello to Sam, bringing with him his then girlfriend, Marilyn Evans. Johnny Cash was at the studio as well, both to listen to Perkins record Matchbox and to discuss possible work with Perkins’s drummer at the time, W. S. Holland. Both Cash and Elvis had an affinity for gospel music, and before long both were in the studio, singing brief passages of gospel tunes.

Unknown to any of the musicians at the time, Phillips had his engineer record the impromptu sessions, which did not last long as the flamboyant Jerry Lee Lewis was soon dominating the sound with his playing on a Wurlitzer spinet piano. Presley, the biggest star at the time of the four, was the first to withdraw, but not before Bob Johnson, an editor with the Memphis Press-Scimitar, arrived with a UPI reporter and a photographer, having been shrewdly summoned by Sam Phillips. A story and photograph appeared in the Memphis newspaper the following day, headlined Million Dollar Quartet. The recordings have been released several times with different track listings, and in 1982 Cash reunited with Perkins and Lewis for more recordings, releasing an album they called The Survivors Live.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Publicity photo of Johnny Cash performing with Cass Elliott of the Mamas and the Papas on The Johnny Cash Show in 1969. ABC Television

11. A Georgia arrest led to his first attempt to quit drugs

In the biopic I Walk the Line credit for helping Johnny Cash quit abusing amphetamines was given to June Carter, with the aid of her mother Maybelle and other members of the Carter Family. Little is said about the efforts of a Georgia sheriff named Ralph Jones, who as sheriff of rural Walker County knew his constituents well and had a no-nonsense approach towards crime and criminal behavior in his jurisdiction, which in 1967 included zero tolerance for illegal drugs. Jones was also a fan of Johnny Cash when the singer was arrested by one of his deputies that year, for trespassing, public intoxication, and possession of a significant amount of prescription drugs. Cash also attempted to bribe the arresting officer into letting him go free.

Jones went to see the troubled singer in his cell in the county jail in Lafayette, Georgia, and after a long talk during which the sheriff tried to get Cash to face his drug issues, gave him back his money and drugs, dropped the charges, and sent Cash on his way with the warning that whether Cash lived or killed himself was strictly up to him. He prophesied that if Cash didn’t seek help for his addictions, the latter would be the inevitable result. Cash later wrote that the Georgia sheriff saved his life, and thanked him face to face on national television. He later returned to Lafayette to perform a benefit concert, raising $75,000 for the athletic program for the local high school, and remained in touch with the sheriff for years after.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Cash decided to commit suicide in Nickajack Cave near Lookout Mountain before a spiritual epiphany deterred him. Wikimedia

12. He attempted suicide in early 1968 in Nickajack Cave

Despite Cash later giving credit to Sheriff Jones for helping him turn himself around following his 1967 arrest, Johnny continued taking pills at an impressive rate, speed to keep him working and tranquilizers to calm him down. Although he recorded the successful song Jackson with June Carter, he continued to live separately, sharing quarters with Waylon Jennings, who also was addicted to the same drugs as Cash. The two singers took to hiding their stash of drugs and the atmosphere was one of paranoia and delusion. According to Cash he was by early 1968 completely strung out on drugs, and he decided to commit suicide by crawling so far into Nickajack Cave that he would be unable to find his way out taking with him a fatal dose.

Nickajack Cave is the site of an Indian massacre and a position in which deserting Confederate soldiers took shelter during and after the Battle of Lookout Mountain. Portions of the cave are flooded. Cash entered the cave after taking several pills, carrying others with which to facilitate his suicide, when he had what he described as an epiphany. After the spiritual experience in the cave he decided to enter into rehab, and crawled back to the entrance, where he found June and Maybelle Carter waiting for him, as he wrote in his autobiography. Cash had always had a strong religious streak, and following the Nickajack experience his religious activities and convictions grew stronger, as was reflected in his musical performances.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Ralph Edwards hosted the popular NBC program This is Your Life, surprising celebrities on their own programs, as he did Johnny Cash during a taping of The Johnny Cash Show. NBC Television

13. The Johnny Cash Show began as a summer replacement for The Hollywood Palace

When Johnny Cash was approached to host a summer replacement variety show he was given a wide latitude of creative freedom, though he was still required to present the show business luminaries which attracted advertisers. Although the program originated in Nashville, Cash did not limit his musical performers to country and western stars. Bob Dylan appeared on the program, as did Joni Mitchell, The Cowsills (real life inspiration for the Partridge Family), The Monkees, Melanie, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and many other acts from outside the world of country music. Cash was not above generating controversy either, supporting performances of protest songs which opposed the Vietnam War.

During one taping of the show June Carter appeared, and told the host that she wanted to introduce a friend before bringing Ralph Edwards onstage for a presentation of This Is Your Life, featuring Cash. It was during the taping that Cash publicly thanked Sheriff Ralph Jones, who appeared on the program. The Johnny Cash Show was canceled in 1971, though CBS reprised the program for four weeks in 1976. That same year began a series of Christmas specials featuring Johnny and the Carter Family, which aired almost annually through 1985. The programs on CBS were more focused on comedy and holiday music, rather than the eclectic collection of musical performers which Johnny had featured on his weekly series.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
In the 1970s Johnny Cash’s rejuvenated image led to his developing friendships with several US Presidents, including Jimmy Carter as seen here. National Archives

14. The Johnny Cash prison concerts

Johnny Cash began playing concerts in prisons and county jails in the late 1950s, during the height of his first period of heavy drug use. On New Year’s Day, 1958, Johnny Cash and his entourage played a concert at San Quentin State Prison, with one of the inmates who saw him perform being a twenty year old petty thief and burglar named Merle Haggard. Haggard was serving a fifteen year sentence for a burglary for which he had been convicted two years earlier, at the age of eighteen. Haggard was released early for that conviction, in part because of his youth, and left prison determined to become a musician, admiring Cash for his arrogance towards the guards, which created for him a new base of fans for him and his music.

In 1968 Cash played a concert at Folsom Prison, which he recorded and released as a live album which rejuvenated his flagging career. The following year he recorded a concert at San Quentin, which led to another successful album. Both of the albums reached number one on the country music charts. In 1969 Cash sold more records than the Beatles, with 6.5 million shipped. He played a concert in a Swedish prison in 1972, Osteraker Prison, producing another live album (in which Osteraker was substituted for San Quentin) and in 1976 performed at a Tennessee prison, which was videotaped for television. The prison concerts coupled with Cash’s bad boy image produced a perception among some of his newly won fans that Cash was a former prison inmate, which though widespread was untrue.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Former US Marine Ira Hayes (left), one of the men who raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima, became the subject of controversy for Cash in his song, The Ballad of Ira Hayes. UCLA Library

15. He became a Native American activist in song and actions

As early as during his first albums for Columbia Records in the late 1950s, Cash was recording songs describing the plight of American Indians, in terms sympathetic to the Indians, and was encountering resistance from his label due to his position being in opposition to mainstream country and western fans of the day. In 1964, following the success of his song I Walk the Line, he recorded an album entitled Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. It was Cash’s twentieth album, and was rejected by radio stations and fans for its perceived anti-American stance. Cash decided to fight back against the censorship by mainstream country radio stations and promoted the album heavily.

One song in particular, The Ballad of Ira Hayes, told the story of Pima native Ira Hayes, one of the six Marines who raised the American flag during the battle for Iwo Jima. Cash created a full page advertisement for the song in Billboard Magazine, calling radio stations and disk jockeys who refused to play it cowards and “gutless”. He personally purchased 1,000 copies of the record and distributed it to radio stations, encouraging and in some instances daring them to play the record. Eventually The Ballad of Ira Hayes rose to number three on the country charts, driving sales of the album with it. Bitter Tears reached number two on the album charts later in the year, and Cash’s reputation as a supporter of Indian rights was cemented by his other work on television and in interviews.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash carefully nurtured an outlaw image while living a lifestyle that often mimicked one, nearly always clad in black onstage. Getty

15. Becoming the legendary Man in Black

When Johnny Cash began performing on stage, he and his band agreed to wear matching shirts, selecting the color black because it was easier to appear to be clean despite the repeated wearings during a series of performances, often several in a single day. By the 1970s this had evolved to Cash appearing dressed in black from head to toe, often with black sunglasses, and usually wearing a long black coat. His appearance was a notable separation from the majority of country and western stars of the day, who favored rhinestones, decorated hats, and flamboyant suits and other garb. Cash later explained his reasons for favoring black, both in the song Man in Black and in interviews.

Cash explained that he wore black as a sign of mourning for those killed in Vietnam, and for their families in sympathy for their loss. He claimed black was a protest against prisoners being held under sentences which were far too long in relation to the gravity of their crime. He also claimed it was a symbol that he stood for the poor and suffering around the country and the world, and once said that black stood for those whose lives had been torn apart by drugs. In another interview he said that he wore black simply because he liked the color. By the 1970s, especially following his successful television show, Cash was known as the Man in Black to the point that advertisers started to exploit his image.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
By the mid-1970s Cash was a marketing icon for numerous consumer products, with advertisers relying on his longstanding image of honesty. Rockapedia

16. Cash became a marketing icon in the mid-seventies

In the mid-1970s Johnny Cash had gone some time without a hit record, and the sales of his older recordings began to decline. The mid-seventies also featured the first oil crisis in the United States, and the oil companies were widely believed to be gouging the public, bringing what the president referred to as “windfall’ profits while there were shortages of gasoline at the pumps. Cash chose this period to participate in an advertising campaign for Amoco, which also cut into his popularity, despite his reputation for integrity in expressing his opinions. He made a second campaign for STP, a petroleum and gasoline additive which claimed to increase gas mileage, a new consideration for Americans.

He also built on his image as a country and western star to participate in a marketing campaign for Lionel electric trains. By the 1970s electric trains in general were losing popularity to slot cars and other model cars, and those electric trains which did sell were for the most part the smaller HO gauge. The bigger Lionel trains and the larger track sets they required were dying out. Cash called on the traditions of Lionel trains for Christmas in a series of commercials which kept his image on television, themed by his music, during the middle of the decade. Lionel sales continued to drop as the idea of electric trains around the Christmas tree was replaced with a growing number of electronic toys.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Billy Graham, seen here in the Oval Office with President Gerald R. Ford, was a close friend and business associate of Johnny Cash, who frequently performed at Graham’s crusades. White House

17. Johnny Cash and the Billy Graham Crusades

Johnny Cash and Billy Graham became close friends, which led to them working together to produce the project The Gospel Road, a film and soundtrack album released in 1973. The film tells the story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, as written by Cash, and the soundtrack album contains numerous songs from throughout his career, connected by narrations during which Cash describes action on the screen during the film. Cash considered the film, which he wrote, to be an explanation of his personal religious beliefs, rather than a strict presentation of the biblical story, and it is reflected in the songs which are selected for the film. The songs include gospel recordings along with his signature, Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.

Johnny and June Carter appeared in numerous Billy Graham Crusades, including several of the evangelist’s TV specials, though he also backslid into drug abuse during the period. Cash recorded an album of gospel songs which he named A Believer Sings the Truth, though Columbia refused to release it when he presented it to executives in 1979. Despite being under contract to Columbia Records, Cash released the album on a private label. Cash’s involvement with Billy Graham was amplified by his own Christmas specials, and his frequent inclusion of gospel and religious music on his more mainstream country albums during the 1970s.

18 Tales from the Life of American Legend Johnny Cash
Kris Kristofferson (far left with guitar) and Johnny Cash worked on several projects together, including made-for-television movies including a remake of the 1939 classic Stagecoach. Wikimedia

18. He gained respect as a serious actor in movies made for television

Besides his work as the host of his own show, Johnny Cash gained critical acclaim for acting performances in several made-for-television movies, as well as being a guest star in both mini-series and episodic television. His first appearance in film was in 1961, in the noir film Five Minutes to Live. It was not well received. In 1971 Cash appeared with Kirk Douglas in The Gunfight, a film paid for by the Jicarilla Apache tribe, in which he shared top billing, but the film did little at the box office. He also did narration for a 2003 film starring Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio del Toro, as well as voiceover work in other films of a documentary nature.

But in television he demonstrated his considerable acting ability, in both sit-coms and episodes of crime dramas, including a well-received episode of Columbo in 1974, and another on Little House on the Prairie in 1976. He was in the miniseries North and South, portraying abolitionist John Brown during the build-up to the American Civil War. He produced and starred in the television films The Pride of Jesse Hallam; The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James (as Frank James); and a remake of the film Stagecoach, in which he played Curly Rogers. He made several appearances on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and also appeared in a voiceover on The Simpsons, as Space Coyote. He had many other roles, throughout his successful career on the small screen.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Cash: The Autobiography”. Johnny Cash. 1997

“The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love, and Faith of an American Legend”. Steven Turner. 2005

“How Sam Phillips Discovered the Sound of Rock and Roll”. Matt Blitz, Popular Mechanics Magazine. August 15, 2016

“Johnny Cash’s first wife tells of romance, heartbreak”. Brett Johnson, VC Star. October 26, 2016

“The Time Johnny Cash Set Fire to a National Forest”. Johnny Whiteside, LA Weekly. June 13, 2014

“Tales From the Morgue: The Man in Black (mail)”. Trish Long, El Paso Times, April 25, 2008

“Sam Phillips: The Rolling Stone Interview”. Elizabeth Kaye, Rolling Stone Magazine. February 13, 1986

“I Was There When It Happened: My Life With Johnny Cash”. Marshall Grant. 2006

“Root of Cash’s hit tunes”. Robert Hilburn. The Los Angeles Times. August 22, 2006

“Christgau’s Consumer Guide”. Robert Christgau, The Village Voice. February 23, 1988

“The Time Johnny Cash was Arrested in Walker County”. Jerry Summers, Times Free Press. July 24, 2016

“The stories of Johnny Cash”. Todd Leopold, CNN Entertainment. December 31, 2013

“Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan Tape TV Number in Nashville”. Patrick Thomas, Rolling Stone Magazine. June 1, 1969

“Johnny Cash and his prison reform campaign”. Danny Robins, BBC World News Service. January 23, 2013

“Johnny Cash Risked His Career to Take a Stand”. Antonini D’Ambrosio, The New York Times. August 27, 2014

“Flashback: See Johnny Cash’s Style-Defining ‘Man in Black’ in 1971”. Stephen L. Betts, Rolling Stone Country, February 16, 2016. Online

“Johnny Cash, Trend Chaser”. Noah Berlatsky, The Atlantic. March 26, 2014

“For Johnny Cash, Billy Graham was friend and confidant”. Juli Thanki, USA Today Network, Tennessean. February 21, 2018

“Rewind: The Uneven Acting Legacy of Johnny Cash”. Kurt Heitmueller, MTV online. November 14, 2005

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