Today would have been Johnny Cash’s 82nd birthday. The country music legend passed away 11 years ago at the age of 71, but his music and outlaw legacy live on. Few musicians have had a career filled with as many setbacks and triumphant returns to the spotlight as The Man in Black. And even fewer will ever amass the number of recordings he had under his belt (55 studio albums, 104 compilation albums, and 6 live albums).
In honor of Johnny Cash’s legacy, I’ve rounded up 10 facts about one of American music’s greatest recording artists — three of which involve strange incidents involving birds. Yeah, the guy had a rocky history with fowl.
1. Roy Orbison was Cash’s neighbor for 20 years. Besides being longtime neighbors and collaborating on several projects together, Cash reached out to his friend after Orbison suffered a devastating tragedy. When the singer was on a European tour in 1968, a fire broke out in his home, killing two of his three sons. Cash bought the abandoned lot where the house had stood and turned it into a memorial grave, promising Orbison that he would never sell it.
2. The ostrich attack incident. Investing in weird sh*t is a tradition in the music business, and back in the 1980s energy drinks weren’t a thing yet, so Johnny Cash did the next best thing and started an ostrich farm. While tending the ostriches one afternoon, Cash was kicked in the upper torso by a male and sent to the emergency room with five broken ribs and internal bleeding. To make matters worse, Cash developed a morphine addiction after being given the drug during his recovery.
3. Johnny Cash had a cousin in the White House. Cash became a cousin through marriage to President Jimmy Carter, who was a distant cousin to Cash’s wife, June Carter-Cash. The two remained friends throughout the rest of Cash’s life.
4. “Walk The Line” came from hearing Bavarian guitar music backwards. One of Cash’s most iconic songs came about in a very strange way as explained to Larry King in a 2002 interview:
“I had a Wilcox Gay Recorder — a tape recorder in the Air Force in 1952. And I was always — only guitar I was going do-do-do-do-do — well it got turned around. The tape got in there backwards. And hen I played it, it went sh-sh-sh-sh and it had a kind of a drone sound like I finally had on the record.
But I couldn’t figure out where that sound came from when I played it. When I took that sound — when I got home — when I was home from the Air Force, I was on the road and that sound was haunting me again. And then — but then the line “because you’re mine, I walk the line.” It kept coming to me, you know?”
5. Johnny parodied his own hit with the song and video “Chicken In Black.” Cash’s record sales had slowed considerably in the 1980s and his label, Columbia had basically placed him in the bargain bin of nostalgic acts. In order to get the label’s attention, Cash parodied “Man In Black” with a song about his brain being transplanted into a chicken. The chicken-brained idea worked and Columbia dropped him from their label shortly after the song’s release.