10 Badass Johnny Cash Moments

January 17, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Outlaw History  //  49 Comments


What made Johnny Cash the ultimate badass was his ability to bridge people together regardless of taste in music, cultural differences, or political ideology. Johnny Cash could tackle some of the most difficult issues facing a tumultuous American society as it saw the emergence of rock and roll and the counterculture because they man had such an air of respect about him. When he spoke, everyone quieted, and listened. Great music and musicians dominate genres. Legends transcend genres. It’s is quite the daunting challenge to find someone who doesn’t have something nice to say about Johnny Cash regardless of sex, race, creed, status, or cultural background.


1. Intercepting the News of the Death of Joseph Stalin

johnny-cash-air-force-1That’s right, the first American to hear about the death of the ruthless Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and report it to the United States government was none other than the Man in Black. Johnny Cash spent 4 years in the Air Force, rising to Staff Sargent, and working in Landsberg, West Germany for the Air Force Security Service. The name of Cash’s first band was “The Landsberg Barbarians,” an homage to the German town he called home.

While stationed in Landsburg, Cash was working as a Morse Code Intercept Operator, monitoring transmissions from the Soviet Army. Around March 5th, 1953, he was translating Morse signals when can came upon the important information. At the height of hostilities during the Cold War, this intelligence was considered crucial.

Cash was honorably discharged from the Air Force in July of 1954 to pursue his career in music.

Read More About Johnny Cash Cracking The Joseph Stalin Code

2. Recording “Sunday Morning Coming Down”

It was the song that made Kris Kristofferson a household name, but it wasn’t Ray Stevens’ version of it in 1969 that stalled at #55 on the charts, or Kristofferson’s own version which didn’t chart at all that made it such an iconic part of the American songbook. It was Johnny Cash’s take on “Sunday Morning Coming Down” that took it all the way to #1 in 1970, and eventually to being named Song of the Year by the Country Music Association.

It’s because only Johnny Cash had the credibility and undying loyalty of the country music community to sing what was a controversial song at the time, and have people listen through the controversy to the heart of the story that Kristofferson had so eloquently captured.

Johnny Cash wasn’t a country music Outlaw in the traditional sense, but he was an honorary Outlaw in every sense, and when he sang “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” he took Kristofferson from a barely-known songwriter to a national celebrity.

3. Concerts and Albums From Folsom and San Quentin Prisons

Probably the most obvious of Johnny Cash’s badass moments, but ones that cannot be understated in their significance both musically and culturally, Johnny Cash performed at The Folsom State Prison and the San Quentin Prison—two notorious lockups in California—in 1968 and 1969 respectively, with the live recordings taken from the concerts becoming significant and commercially successful live albums that are given credit for being some of the best ever in country music.

Johnny Cash played two shows at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968, resulting in 15 live tracks for the At Folsom Prison Album. At San Quentin was recorded on February 24, 1969 and was more of a linear recording of the event, though the original LP took out some songs because of space restrictions. The two albums are given credit for resurrecting Cash’s career, while raising awareness about the issues facing individuals in incarceration, and bridging cultural differences between music fans during a tumultuous time in America. If people were not aware before, Johnny Cash’s prison albums announced to the world inside and outside of country music that he truly was a badass.

4. Having A Smoke With A.P. Carter

Depending on who to talk to, the father of country music is either the singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers, or the patriarch of the Carter Family, A.P. Cater. Seeing how Johnny Cash married into the Carter Family, he would probably say the answer is the latter.

Producer, songwriter, and cosmic music man “Cowboy” Jack Clement was famous for shooting home movies when hanging around his musical friends and cohorts, and he was fortunate enough to have captured the moment Johnny Cash decided to drive out to the grave site of A.P. Carter at the Mount Vernon Methodist Church Cemetery in Virginia to have a smoke with the man responsible for the first ever commercial country music group. The clip below comes from the movie Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement’s Home Movies.

un5. Receiving The United Nations Humanitarian Award

Johnny Cash’s efforts to help the less fortunate throughout his life have been well-documented, and on June 10th 1978 at the annual United Nations Citation Dinner in New York City, he was presented with the United Nations Humanitarian Award.

6. Hosting the Million Dollar Songwriter Circle


You’ve all heard about the “Million Dollar Quartet”—the recording session at legendary Sun Studios in Memphis on December 4th, 1956 that compiled the talent of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Well if there was an equivalent to the Million Dollar Quartet in the songwriting world, it would be the one night in January of 1969 when Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, and Shel Silverstein all spent an evening at Johnny Cash’s home in Hendersonville, TN on the banks of Old Hickory Lake, swapping songs and stories from their respective spheres of the music world.

The music that was showcased for the first time ever at the intimate songwriter circle became the soundtrack for a generation, and the gathering would go down in history as one of the most potent assemblages of songs showcased for the first time in one place. “That night in my house [was] the first time these songs were heard…” Johnny Cash explains. “Joni Mitchell sang ‘Both Sides Now,’ Graham Nash sang ‘Marrakesh Express,’ Shel Silverstein sang ‘A Boy Named Sue,’ Bob Dylan sang ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ and Kristofferson sang ‘Me & Bobby McGee.’ That was the first time any of those songs were heard.” (read more on the Million Dollar Songwriter Circle)

7. Sharing an Apartment with Waylon Jennings

johnny-cash-waylon-jenningsBefore Johnny Cash married June Carter, and before Waylon Jennings married Jessi Colter, and the two men were picking up the pieces from recent divorces, they shared a pad at the Fontaine Royal Apartments in Madison, Tennessee, just north of Nashville. At that time in the mid-60’s, Johnny Cash was a star, but Waylon was still a newcomer. By all accounts, the two men would barely see each other, and would be in and out at all manner of the day and night, leave on tour, come back, be out the next morning for a studio session, usually while taking trucker pills and sleeping very little.

Stories abound about some of the happenings at Fontaine Royal, with some considering it to be the equivalent of a country music “stabbin’ cabin.” One story says as the two men would walk by the swimming pool on their way in or out, throwing money into it for the neighborhood kids to dive in and retrieve. Oh, to be a fly on that wall….

8. Releasing Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian

johnny-cash-bitter-tearsMany artists and people talk and good talk about supporting the so often wronged American Indian, but Johnny Cash stepped up to the plate and did so in a big way when he released this concept album paying tribute to the stories and struggles of the American Indian. Johnny Cash had Cherokee blood in his family, and claims this was one of the inspirations for the album.

Aside from the music, this album is significant in so many other ways. Though Willie Nelson’s conceptualized albums Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger are often given credit for being the first conceptualized albums in country music, Bitter Tears came out in 1964; a decade before those Willie records. Furthermore the album was released ahead of the popularization of Native American issues that happened in the late 60’s as part of the counterculture movement. Way more than a trendy work looking to exploit a pet issue of guilt-riddled baby boomers, Bitter Tears was a groundbreaking approach to the album concept in country music that carried a sincere concern and reverence for the American Indian, illustrating Cash’s dedication as a humanitarian throughout his career.

9. Inviting Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash Show

The Johnny Cash show was badass enough in its own right in how Johnny reached out to every corner of the American music world to create magical, legendary moments on a weekly basis from the Ryman Auditorium. The Johnny Cash Show Ran from ran from June of 1969 to March of 1971 on ABC, featuring a total of 58 episodes and not a bad one in the bunch.

But if one episode stood out, it was Bob Dylan’s appearance in 1969 around his recording of his Nashville Skyline record. It symbolized the confluence of two music worlds, and two titans of them and the results were magic. From the original Rolling Stone article covering the event:

The Dylan appearance was no secret in Nashville, fortunately. It goes without saying that Cash fans are as baffled by Dylan’s emergence here as Dylan freaks were startled at the news of this new axis. But they all lined up outside the Opry: businessmen and their wives, country boys, bald heads, acid heads, bee-hive bouffant blondes, drawling teenyboppers and other assorted traveling wonderers. There is no doubt that a good part of the audience was there just to see Cash and didn’t know what all the fuss was about. But the seats and aisles of the Opry were full, and Dylan did not lack a fine representation of people familiar with his work.

10. Recording “Hurt” From NIN’s Trent Reznor

There were many songs, especially from Johnny Cash’s American Recordings era that The Man In Black took from great to legendary, but none resonated so deeply with a generation like this one. “Hurt” off of the Nine Inch Nails’ album The Downward Spiral from 1994 was nominated for a Grammy in 1996, but wasn’t an especially well-known song outside of the industrial music mindset. It certainly wasn’t on the radar of country fans when Cash cut it in 2002, but it became arguably his last big hit, and the doorway for an entire new generation of fans to find love for Johnny Cash, helped along by an iconic video.

11. (Bonus) Flipping The Warden The Bird

Johnny Cash’s famous middle finger photo was shot at the Cash concert in 1969 at California’s San Quentin prison by photographer Jim Marshall. The pose was the result of Cash’s response to the request: “John, let’s do a shot for the warden.” Marshall has since said it was “probably the most ripped off photograph in the history of the world.”

But the picture remained relatively obscure until 1998 when Johnny was working with legendary producer Rick Rubin on his American Recordings albums. The second American album Unchained won the 1998 Grammy for Best Country Album. But could you hear Johnny Cash’s music on the country radio? Not so much. Rubin called country radio a “trendy scene,” and decided to fire a shot right at Music Row. Rubin dug deep and pulled out $20,000 to take a full page ad out in Billboard Magazine. The ad featured the famous Cash bird flipping, and the caption: “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.” (read more on the middle finger photo)


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49 Comments to “10 Badass Johnny Cash Moments”

  • Awesome read! I did not know about intercepting the news of Stalin. I put “Bitter Tears” on the turntable. It’s been a long time since I gave that a listen. Thanks, Trig!


  • I think he is one of the most overrated musicians of all time right next to Bob Dylan. But, the article was well written.


    • You are entitled to your opinion that is the American way. However, I’m curious how you came to be of the opionion about Cash and Dylan ?


      • He came to that opinion to be cool and different. Don’t expect an intelligent thought out response to why he thinks that way.


        • Bingo. This isn’t the first time he has taken a pot shot at Johnny Cash.


          • Johnny Cash sang some incredibly awful rot and Dylan can’t sing and never could. It is fairly obvious that Matt Stanton had the nerve to say what most people think.


          • It’s a reality that Bob Dylan cannot hold a note in a bucket when singing but is a great songwriter. Musicians have always made fun of his singing. But he can write very well which was his saving grace. Imagine if he tried to base is career on singing alone? He would have starved to death. Cash could sing better than Dylan but he wasn’t a great singer, he was a great writer and had an even better stage personality. It’s apples and oranges, folks, sort of like a great football player who can throw or kick better than anyone else but doesn’t necessary make a great coach.


        • There is nothing more “trendy” or “cool” among hipster morons than to say “I don’t like country music, but I like Johnny Cash.”


          • There’s more than just the one kind of hipster. My guess is he thinks he’s onto something that the rest of us country music lovers are too simple to realize.


          • I’m a born and raised Country Music fan, but I’ve never cared much for Johnny Cash. I’m not impressed by his voice, and his music has never been country enough for me. I can’t remember any song of his having a fiddle in it, and only one with a steel guitar. Your hipster comment is really true, and it brought to mind something else about Cash that bothers me: he is the Country singer that all Rock N Rollers, hipsters, Liberals, and all other Country music outsiders name as their favorite Country singer. Country Music people will almost always name Jones, Hag, Lefty, Conway, Buck, or Marty. But people who did not grow up on Country will always say Cash is their favorite.


        • I came to that opinion by hearing his music throughout my life and simply not caring for it. I’m not saying he had no talent, I’m not saying I’m cooler than ya’ll, I’m just saying that there are much more talented country musicians that also deserve some recognition and have not gotten it.

          There is also the fact that many people who claim to hate country music also say they love Johnny Cash, and that really bugs me. Just because someone played in a prison, covered Soundgarden, flipped the bird in a press shot, doesn’t mean they are a badass musician.

          I’m not sure why there are so many haters on my post. It’s not like I called him a hack, and I liked the article. But, it just seems that its the cool thing to go balls deep into a Johnny Cash obsession nowadays. Lighten up guys


          • Also, the comment above mine by Clint hit the nail on the head. You said it better than I could my friend. I grew up on Texas and classic country, and Johnny Cash never fit the bill IN MY OPINION.


      • Johnny Cash is without a doubt the greatest country music singer of all time.


    • I wish there was a ‘thumbs down’ option in the comments.


    • I agree with you 100% on Dylan. Cash wasn’t much of a musician, but he was a pretty good artist. Cash is probably overrated, but that is the case with a lot of all-time greats….


      • Ok Dylan overrated ? Seriously. He never was a great singer never claimed to be but as a songwriter you really think he is overrated ? That blows my mind. I don’t think he is the “greatest” songwriter of all time but one of them for sure.Cash is like Hank Sr ,Jones or Hag or Willie and Waylon the guys that made Country music what it is or at least was and should be.


    • Johnny Cash may have not been a great “musician” in the sense of the technical ability to play instruments better than others. He generally left the playing to other folks. But what Johnny had that many great musicians could never achieve no matter how much they worked their entire lives at it is the intangibles that make someone a compelling artist and person; a person that sets themselves apart in history and inspires a generation. That is what I was hoping to convey through this list.


    • You need to put someone like Kenny (hardly any talent) Rogers in that class.


    • Try Kurt Cobain, instead. At least Johnny Cash earned his status as opposed to it being handed to him because he decided to kill himself.


      • I don’t think anyone with an IQ above 80 really thinks that Kurt Cobain was anything special. The words to most of their songs were just silly gibberish and Cobain himself said this in interviews.


        • I wouldn’t go so far as to insult the intelligence of Cobain/Nirvana fans, but they do get quite annoying. It’s interesting that he apparently admitted that his songwriting wasn’t anything special; I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that praise his “lyrical genius.” WTF? This is why I generally hate alternative music, personally: it’s abstract to the point that people actually think it’s creative or clever simply BECAUSE it’s abstract. They read into it in their own ways and find meaning where there is none, and if YOU should happen to not like it or think it’s mediocre you just “don’t get it.” Cute. I had a hipster tell me whilst I was listening to a country song that “anyone can write lyrics like that.” Really? I disagree. I think “anyone” can write alternative lyrics, where meaning isn’t required, meaning that IS present is worthless and storytelling and lyrical flow are nonexistant. Call me crazy, but I think it’s MUCH harder to write a song that doesn’t rely on randomness and annonimity and instead is clever in its clarity and poignant in its depictions of life. For this reason, “Folsom Prison Blues” kicks the ass of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Lithium” or “About a Girl” any day (and that’s just ONE of Cash’s MANY great songs).


          • Watch the first three minutes. He calls his lyrics “garbage,” says that people want to “read” into them a lot of meanings that aren’t there, and says that usually he is so “lazy” that he just throws a bunch of crap together at the “last second.”


            Weird Al is a pretty smart guy. What makes his parodies so funny is that they cut to the core of why a song/look/act/voice is so ridiculous. Weird Al’s parody of Smell’s Like Teen Spirit was based on how meaningless the lyrics are….


  • I have that poster of Cash flipping the bird hanging up on my wall. Always get compliments on it haha.


  • Johnny Cash trancended any genere of music he was all of America’s country fans, rockers, blue collar folks and conter culture people. Christians and people of all religons or no religon at all. He was a national treasure. The first record I ever plunked down my lawn mowing money to buy as a kid was a Johnny Cash record. RIP Mr. Cash.


  • Speaking of transcending genres… Being a big Sci-Fi nerd, I loved that on Stargate Atlantis, Col. Sheppard always had a poster of Cash above his bed in Atlantis (If you’re going to be a Col in another universe cut off from Earth and with hostile aliens all over the place, Cash aint a bad role model to have). The alternate reality episode where Sheppard was a detective on Earth was amazingly cool (gun battle to “solitary man”).


  • “Legends transcend genres.”

    Careful with this quote…before you know it, country rappers will start calling themselves “legends”!


    • That’s gonna be the name of Colt Ford’s next album, “Colt Ford – Legend”.


    • Don’t you ever, EVER cuss like that again ;)


  • Great article! Was surprised that Johnny starting a forrest fire wasn’t on here.


    • I was expecting that one too. And possibly the ostrich fight.


      • Yep, I was also expecting Ostrich fight.


        • The ostrich fight might get its own dedicated story ;).


    • The forest fire was a little more notorious than badass. Not a particularly shining moment for Cash, but an interesting story nonetheless.


  • The other day I watched an episode of the Johnny Cash show on youtube. He had on Dylan, Joanie Mitchell, Doug Kershaw, (he was great) June Carter Cash, each guest did songs for about ten minutes.

    It must have been right around the time mentioned in the post. The music was really good,

    But the most amazing part about it for me, was that Johnny Cash did a several minutes long commentary on the prisoners on death row. Supporting them.

    On a national network tv music and variety show.

    Not many people then or now had/have the courage, or the following to do that.

    It made me a much bigger fan than I’ve ever been of the man.

    Great post thanks very much.


  • Great article. Johnny’s whole life was kick ass. Here’s the great balladeer Burl Ives with Johnny Cash on his show. You know Burl Ives was the Johnny Cash of his era, IMHO http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3l903r0RUSg


    • No, Burl Ives was a snitch / rat. He caused many folk singers to get blacklisted in the McCarthy era. Johnny Cash actively tried to break that blacklist and even though it took many years, Cash eventually succeeded in getting Pete Seeger back on the airwaves.

      Burl Ives and Johnny Cash were on opposite sides. And should never be mentioned in the same sentence.

      FYI: From the wiki: Ives was identified in the 1950 pamphlet Red Channels and blacklisted as an entertainer with supposed Communist ties. In 1952, he cooperated with the House Committee on Unamerican Activities (HUAC) and agreed to testify. Ives’s statement to the HUAC ended his blacklisting, allowing him to continue acting in movies. But, it also led to a bitter rift between Ives and many folk singers, including Pete Seeger, who accused Ives of betraying them and the cause of cultural and political freedom to save his own career.


      • That somehow makes both Johnny Cash and Burl Ives’ multiple appearances on his show even more bad ass.


    • Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger discussing Native American rights …


  • Awesome read and well written! Cash is the one that started it all for me when i discovered his music when I was about 16/17 after following the musical flock for too long! There was a period of time in my life that I listened to nothing else but Cash, resulting in over 10 hours of his music on my PC. I started of with his early SUN years and his vast body of work introduced me to so many other greats: Waylon, Willie, the 3 hanks, Dylan, Orbison etc. Resulting in a growing love for country music in general which led me to newer artists such as wayne Hancock, Caitlin Rose, Hank 3, Jason Isbell, Lindi Ortega and many more. God bless the one and only Man in Black !


  • Johnny Cash is my favorite artist, his music will always have a special place with me. However, I don’t think he is the most “country” act to ever go down in history, and a lot of his songs do tend to lean more towards rock n roll than anything (which is fine by me). I really appreciate how much of his soul he poured into his music and can confidently say he will never be replaced


  • Having a smoke with A.P. Carter reminds me of my friend’s story who once went with his school – colleague to the cemetery to visit his colleague’s father’s grave who passed away about ten years ago because of the alcohol overdose. Before they went out, the dead man’s son got some money from his mother to buy flowers to put on the grave. They almost bought the flowers but my friend’s colleague suddenly changed his mind and decided to buy two cans of the cheapest beer in my town. Instead of putting the flowers, they drank beer on the grave, saluting the dead drunkard. Family tradition…


  • I went to the Johnny Cash museum while visiting Nashville in November.
    He was never in the top of my favorite list.
    But I learned much more about the man there and gained more respect for him.
    He did alot for real country music.


  • Johnny Cash was and is an American legend. I don’t care if you say he isn’t down home classic country. He made his music and he made a hell of a lot more musicians relevant. Hell Bob Dylan had a huge influence on John Lennon which had a huge influence on the entire music scene and to say that Johnny isnt country because he appealed to an audience larger than Tubbs, Hank, the possum, and pretty much every country music singer you can name isnt damning. Being from two immigrant families that settled in Chicago I was never raised on traditional country music, but Johnny changed that for me and now more so my entire family. I dont care if you are from Mobile or Spokane JR Cash did more for country music than anyone has. and that includes (no disrespect) to everyone mentioned above and on this site. He had the charm and charisma of Elvis but he had more say in what he put out. That is why we had albums like bitter tears. (side note if it werent for tom parker thered be a lot more posts about the king on this site) Im so sick of the he is or isnt country or he shouldnt have done hurt or all this bull shit. Johnny and the songs he has recorded and his ability to overcome in life have inspired me and I dont care if you hate anything without a steel guitar Johnny Cash defines an era of country music, and the genre as a whole


  • Im not directing any frustration at this site just the negative comments about the man in black


  • I got to like him through the American Recordings though I known about his music for a very long time. Never cared much for the music and I’m still tired of everbody name dropping him but I have to say that he is a VERY good role model for picking your self up an move forward with the right attitude. I truly respect him for what he stood or as a person (even the music).


  • Thanks for the great article! John R. Cash is the man! Anyone who says he isn’t country doesn’t know anything about the man in black! Five Feet High and Rising, Picking Time, etc. He grew up a cotton farmer. Most other “country” artist just enjoyed the music genre, he lived and grew up in the country life. To say he isn’t country is a very ignorant statement, and that’s putting it nicely. Would you call today’s music country just because it uses a fiddle? Lol. I hope not. And Johnny was against the whole urban cowboy fake country of the 80’s and beyond. Check out http://www.facebook.com/JohnnyCashFansWorldwide for more on Cash. Have A Good Day!! Keep it Cash!!


  • Johnny Cash would puke on the boots of what passes for Country today. And then pray that these prissy singers find a backbone (and a soul). “So where are your mountains to match some men?”


    Twitter: Lyrico12


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