Johnny Cash is one of the most iconic figures in 20th century music. And since his death in 2003, he has been immortalised as a symbol of blue collar rebelliousness and hard-won redemption.
Why are people still so captivated by this gravelly voiced country star? In honor of his February 26th birthday, we are looking back at his legacy and exploring three lessons from the life of the Man in Black.
Pack a bowl, put on your favorite Cash record, and prepare to learn.
You Can Be More Than One Thing
Johnny Cash built a reputation as a hellion. He was the bane of the hotel industry for a time, going on drug-fueled rampages that destroyed hotel rooms. He drove his camper, “Jesse”, into the porch of the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Once he and his bandmates released 500 baby chicks in a hotel, just for funsies.
He had a well-documented problem with drugs and was arrested seven times (although he never spent much time in prison). In 1965, Cash crossed the border from El Paso, TX to Juarez, Mexico to buy cheap pills. Upon his return, he was arrested with a huge stash of amphetamines and tranquilizers.
That same year, Jesse the camper met its end when it sparked a fire in California’s Los Padres National Forest. (Or maybe Cash started a campfire and it got out of control—the truth is unclear.) The fire burnt hundreds of acres and killed all but four of the area’s endangered California condors. The incident led to a lawsuit from the U.S. government and a fine of $82,000—about $770,000 in today’s money.
He even earned a ban from the Grand Ole Opry. He performed there as a regular for years, but after a pill-fueled performance and the destruction of all of the stage lights with a microphone stand, the Opry said no more.
And yet…he was a man of faith throughout his life, and became a more devout Christian after his marriage to June Carter in the late 1960s. He attended bible study and became an ordained minister. It’s even said that earned a degree in theology, although what institution granted the degree is unclear.
And he was more than just a songwriter and performer. He wrote poetry and stories. He wrote two autobiographies, Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography. He even wrote a religious novel in the late 1980s called Man in White, imagining the life of the apostle Paul.
The point? The life of Johnny Cash teaches us that we don’t have to be one thing. If Johnny Cash could be a pill-popping Christian/ordained minister/musician/criminal/novelist/vandal, then you, too, can contain multitudes.
Pick a Cause and Work for It
Even though he didn’t spend any real time in lockup outside of a few single nights in jail, Johnny Cash felt strongly about prisoners and prison reform.
He performed for inmates repeatedly during his career, and recorded two of his most successful albums at prisons: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969). It was during a performance at San Quentin that a 20-year-old inmate named Merle Haggard saw Cash on stage and decided he, too, wanted to be a country music star.
At his prison performances, he got the chance to talk to prisoners about their stories of prison life. He heard horrible tales of abuse and violence, and came to believe that the prison system at the time was failing both the inmates and the public. Cash believed in redemption, both as part of his faith and as part of his hopes for his own future. And languishing in prison took away the hope of reform and rehabilitation.
So when he found himself with the ear of the country, he did something about it. In 1972, Cash got the opportunity to testify to a U.S. Senate subcommittee on the topic of prison reform. He shared some of the stories he had heard, and proposed his own reforms. These included separating first-time prisoners from repeat offenders, keeping minors out of adult prisions (something that still happens, believe it or not), and offering pre-release counseling to help convicts adjust to life outside.
He also met personally with President Nixon to discuss the issue. Before the meeting, Nixon requested a few songs. In true Johnny Cash fashion, he ignored the President’s requests. Instead he played a trio of protest songs including What is Truth? against the Vietnam War and The Man in Black (“I wear the black for the poor and beaten down/Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town/I wear it for the prisoner who is long paid for his crime/But is there because he’s a victim of the times”). He finished with The Ballad of Ira Hayes, based on the true story of the Native American marine who helped plant the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima during World War II, only to return home to suffer from PTSD and die early from a combination of alcoholism and exposure.
Most of us will never have the platform of a Johnny Cash. That’s okay. We can still contribute. At GRAV®, we work to destigmatize cannabis and work with organizations that promote cannabis justice.
What’s your cause? It could be national, like contributing to organizations that fight for racial equality or reproductive rights. Or you could pick something closer to home, like a local mutual aid group or a nearby natural area.
Pick a cause. Get involved. It’s what Johnny did.
We Do Better Work When We Work Together
Johnny Cash’s biggest hit is without a doubt (Love’s) Ring of Fire. And he didn’t write it. In fact, it was written by Anita Carter, her sister June Carter, and singer-songwriter Merle Kilgore. Johnny was an unwitting inspiration for the song, as June Carter later said that she wrote it about her increasing feelings for Cash–despite the fact that they were both married to other people at the time.
Anita released her (lovely) version in 1963 to little fanfare or acclaim. A few months later, Cash recorded his version with mariachi-style horns and it was an instant smash.
In fact, Cash often collaborated with and took inspiration from other artists. He worked with Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Petty , Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, and more. He explored different genres, with covers like Bob Marley’s Redemption Song with Joe Strummer of The Clash, and his infamous cover of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails.
Then there were the many collaborations with his wife of over 30 years, June Carter Cash. They won Grammy awards together in 1967 and 1970, and co-hosted a variety show from 1969 to 1971.
Johnny Cash’s career may not have had the star power or the staying power that it did without these other artists and collaborators to inspire him. So do like Johnny. Work with people. Ask for input. Find inspiration out there in the wide world and put your own special stamp on it.
Happy birthday, Johnny. Wherever you are, we hope you and June are making music and loving each other as much as you did when you were with us.
Biography.com, Johnny Cash: 10 Things You Might Not Know About the Country Icon
Roadie Music, 6 Interesting Facts About Johnny Cash
Exclaim, Johnny Cash The Rebel
Wide Open Country, 5 Stories That Capture the Legacy of Johnny Cash
BBC, Johnny Cash and His Prison Reform Campaign
Child Crime Preventions and Safety Center, Minors in Prison
Town & Country, The Iconic Love Story of Johnny Cash and June Carter