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.
6. Cash was the first person to ever be sued by the U.S. Government for starting a forest fire. Johnny Cash enjoyed the great outdoors, but he also had a fondness for amphetamines. During one of his binges in 1965 he drove his camper out to the Los Padres National Wildlife Refuge where he got high and nodded off. An overheated wheel bearing triggered a forest fire and burned 508 acres. When asked by the judge why he did it Cash responded, “I didn’t do it, my truck did, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it.” The fire also killed a number of endangered California Condors to which Cash was not concerned about and made this known by telling the judge, “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards.” The government sued him and he was forced to pay $82,001.
7. The hotel chicken incident. At this point, I think it’s fair to say that Johnny Cash had a thing for birds and his 1950’s hotel chicken stunt only highlights this. While on tour with his band The Tennessee Three in Omaha, Nebraska, Cash bought 500 baby chicks and released 100 on each floor of the hotel.
8. He was hesitant to sing “A Boy Named Sue” at his San Quentin Prison show. Cash had only performed the song once before at a party when his wife June recommended he take the song with him to his show in California. In his interview with Larry King, Cash revealed that he was reluctant to perform the song:
“I’d only read it the first time — sung it the first time the night before and I read it off, you know, as I sing it. I still didn’t know the words to it. So reluctantly I put them in my briefcase and took them to California. And I got out there to do that show. As a last resort, I pulled those lyrics out and laid them on the music stand, and when it came time that I thought I was brave enough, I did that song.”
9. Johnny Cash could translate Morse Code. Before taking up showbiz, Cash served in the military and worked as a Morse Code intercept operator in Germany with the Air Force Security Service.
10. He never performed in anything but black. If you’re going to have the moniker of “The Man in Black” then you had better live up to the title and Johnny did. Johnny would wear light blue during the hot summers in Tennessee, but on stage it was black, almost all the time.
KING: I don’t think I have ever seen you in light blue. Do you ever record — you ever do a concert in light blue?
CASH: No. Never done a concert in anything but black.
KING: Are you a clothes freak?
CASH: You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there. It’s dark.
Not to call the man out, but how would he explains this? Perhaps his black suit was at the dry cleaners.