How The Tragic Death of Johnny Cash’s Brother Jack Shaped His Life

photos: Alan Messer / Johnny Cash archive

Listen to this story on the Country History X podcast, available on SpotifyApple Podcasts, and all other major podcast networks.
– – – – – – – – –

Whenever you delve deep into the history of many of the greatest artists in music, there is often a person or a moment in time that goes on to define their very being and how their life and career unfolds. It’s their compass point for everything they do. It’s the most elemental inspiration and driving force behind them. Often that person or moment is defined by a tragedy. For Johnny Cash, that person was his older brother Jack, and the tragedy was his death on May 12, 1944.

It’s probably not a leap to say we may have never heard of Johnny Cash if it wasn’t for what happened to his brother Jack. Without question, Cash would have been less likely to take it so heavily upon himself to uplift the poor, the forgotten, and the downtrodden as part of his career. Undoubtedly, Johnny Cash wouldn’t have clung so deep to his faith like he did, whether it was while navigating through the troubles of the United States in the ’60 and ’70s amid war and cultural strife, or the trials and tribulations Cash would face in his own tumultuous life.

Johnny Cash rose out of humble means and a simple home life to become a musical superstar that impacted well beyond the bounds of country music. But along with fulfilling his own purpose in life, he also fulfilled what he believed was his brother Jack’s purpose that Jack couldn’t fulfill on his own.

This is the tragic story of the passing of Johnny Cash’s brother Jack.

– – – – – – – – – –

Johnny Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas on February 26th, 1932. The family moved to a farm in Dyess, Arkansas in 1935, which was a New Deal colony established during the Great Depression. The families of Dyess were given opportunities to work the land with the purpose of eventually owning it. Cash’s family raised cotton, and he was out working in the fields from the age of five.

It was in those cotton fields with his family singing while they worked where Cash’s appreciation for music emerged, and many of his songs later in life would be inspired by his experiences in the fields and in Dyess. Cash had three older siblings and three younger siblings, making him the consummate middle child. The sibling just one older than Johnny—or J.R., as they often referred to him—was his brother Jack. Johnny looked up to Jack who was two years older than him, and thought the world of Jack.

From many accounts, Jack was the favored son of the Cash family, especially by Johnny and Jack’s father Ray. Johnny would recall about Jack later in life, “He was very strong. He was muscle bound. He worked out, and was in great shape for 14 years old. Jack had been called to preach. Being called to preach in our religion means that you have dedicated yourself to be a minister. Every night, he was at the table with his library, reading the Bible. He was a great influence on me.”

But when Johnny Cash was 12, tragedy struck Jack, and some of the most gruesome kind. Since it was during The Depression, everyone, including young adults and children, were expected to work. Jack had been hired by the local school to work in the agriculture shop to split logs into fence posts with a industrial table saw. It was a Saturday, and Johnny wanted Jack to go fishing with him, but Jack insisted that he needed to work in the saw mill.

Johnny Cash recalled later that both he, Jack, and his mother had a strange premonition about the day that something was going to go wrong with Jack. This is one of the reasons Johnny wanted Jack to tag along fishing as opposed to working in the agricultural shop. Cash says that his mother came out of their house that has now been preserved as a historic place in Dyess, and saw the two boys off that morning, which is something she rarely if ever did. Johnny brought two fishing poles with him, hoping Jack would join.

But at a fork in the road, Jack took off toward the school, and Johnny toward the river. Cash said it was a terrible day for fishing, and that he laid on the side of the bank for about two hours before he got up and started walking home. On his way, Johnny’s father pulled up in the preacher’s car, and told Johnny to ditch his fishing pole and get in. Cash knew immediately something terrible had happened.

Cash’s father told him that Jack had been injured on the table saw, and that there was no hope for him. The specific details of how Jack was injured are hard to come by, and harder to verify. But while cutting the logs into fence posts, Jack somehow was pulled onto the table himself, and the saw cut straight into him starting in his abdomen, and up through his mid section. According to some accounts, Jack’s injuries were made worse when he had to drag himself off the table, and across the floor seeking help.

Even more difficult to verify, but forwarded by Johnny Cash himself, there could have been either foul play involved, or the accident could have been caused by another individual. In a 1995 interview quoted in the the book Johnny Cash: The Life and Legacy of the Man in Black by Alan Light, Johnny Cash said, “A neighbor went down to the shop with him that day and disappeared after the accident. I always thought of it as murder.”

Whether it was murder, a freak accident, or negligence, Jack Cash was nearly cut in two. But perhaps making matters even more excruciating for Jack, Johnny, and the rest of the Cash family is that Jack would survive for eight days before finally succumbing to his injuries. Though this gave time for the family to say goodbye, it also resulted in painful moments for the Cash clan.

According to Johnny Cash, Jack was in a coma for much of the eight day period. Many of the family had taken up residency in the hospital, holding vigil as Jack clung to life. But right before he passed, Jack became lucid once again. Cash recalls,

“My dad came into the room I was in at 6:44 am, May 12th, 1944. And I heard him praying, and crying. He said, ‘Let’s go gather around the bed, he’s dying.’ We went in there. He’d come out of the coma, and he was so lucid. And he told every one of us goodbye. Then he closed his eyes and said, ‘Mama, can you hear the singing? Do you see the angels?’ She said, ‘No, I can’t.’ He said, ‘Oh, I do. How beautiful.’ And then he died.”

Johnny Cash always believed he’d seen Heaven through his brother Jack’s eyes.

Johnny Cash carried a lot of weight around with him throughout life about the death of his brother Jack. In the Johnny Cash biographical film Walk The Line from 2005, the death of Jack is portrayed starkly, though not entirely accurately, with key elements switched around or embellished for dramatic purposes. It does show Johnny fishing at the time of Jack’s accident, and his father finding Johnny on the road back home and picking him up.

Walk The Line also portrays Cash’s father Ray seeming to directly blame Johnny for the accident. At the funeral, Ray is seen looking down the pew at his family, and staring in a disappointed manner at Johnny. In another pivotal scene, Cash’s father picks up an empty can and shakes it, saying, “You hear that? That’s nothing. That’s what you are.” Johnny’s mom Carrie comes to Johnny’s defense, saying it wasn’t his fault. Ray then says, “The devil did this. He took the wrong son.”

Though Jack was considered the favored son according to Johnny, whether Johnny’s father was truly as hard on him as the film portrays, or if that’s just how hard Johnny Cash was on himself in the aftermath of Jack’s death is up for some interpretation. What is inarguable is that the death of Jack caused a dramatic transformation in Johnny. He felt guilty that he went fishing while his brother went to work, and he wasn’t there to look after Jack.

By certain accounts, Cash was mostly a happy, care-free, and maybe even a careless child before the accident. That is why Johnny father believed he was inferior to Jack. But after Jack’s death, Johnny was significantly more sullen, serious, purposeful, and driven. He’d become The Man in Black. It’s no accident that so many of Johnny Cash’s songs were about moral conflict and redemption, and about the dark aspects of life.

It’s also no accident that so much of Johnny Cash’s career was also marked by Gospel music. Cash felt duty bound to help carry on Jack’s legacy by making sure a share of all the songs he recorded were dedicated to faith and ministry. Johnny Cash set out with purpose to prove that the devil didn’t take the wrong son.

But the severe guilt Johnny carried from Jack’s death also resulted in many of the demons Johnny Cash would have to face throughout his life. Alcoholism and addiction were things that Johnny Cash regularly battled, both privately and publicly. Ten years after the death of Jack in 1954, Johnny moved to Memphis, Tennessee, after serving in the Air Force. Memphis was the nearest big city to Dyess in Arkansas, only about 50 miles away. It also happened to be the home of Sun Records.

By 1956, Johnny Cash was done working regular jobs in Memphis like selling appliances, and was a Sun Records star singing rockabilly and country tunes. On December 4th, 1956, he participated in the iconic Million Dollar Quartet with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. Songs like “Cry! Cry! Cry!,” “Hey Porter,” and “I Walk The Line” would make Johnny Cash famous coast to coast, but so would Cash’s unruly behavior.

By the late 1950’s, Johnny Cash was already addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates in the form of pills and trucker speed. It was often drug-fueled moments that would lend to some of the most notorious Johnny Cash stories, like the time in 1965 when he started a fire in the Los Padres National Forest in California, destroying 508 acres, and scaring off a flock of endangered condors. Cash blamed it on sparks from the exhaust from his camper van. But his nephew Damon Fielder who was with Cash on a fishing trip said Cash started a fire to get warm while under the influence of drugs.

Earlier that year, Cash was notoriously arrested in Starkville, Mississippi for trespassing late at night, waltzing onto someone’s private property to pick flowers in what was likely another drug fueled moment. Then of course there was the drug bust on October 4th, 1965 when Cash was caught with 688 amphetamine pills, and 475 tranquilizers in his guitar case at the Mexican border. Despite all these dalliances, Cash was never charged with anything more than misdemeanors, and always skirted hard time. But this wasn’t exactly the legacy that his brother Jack would have been proud of.

Johnny Cash’s last arrest came in 1967 in Walker County, Georgia when he was found with a bag of pills during and automobile accident. Once again, the Sheriff named Ralph Jones showed Cash leniency, but not before giving Johnny a long talk about how he was wasting his potential and should be using his stardom for better purposes. Cash later gave the incident credit for turning his life around. He also played a benefit concert that attracted 12,000 people, and raised $75,000 for the local high school.

Johnny Cash would be in and out of rehabilitation clinics and recovery hospitals throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, sometimes stimulated by relapses, and other times to stave off serious addiction after recovering from surgeries or injuries that required pain pills. But it was also through this process where Cash discovered that one of the instigators for his addiction was the incessant guilt he felt about the death of brother Jack.

Throughout his life, Johnny Cash always dreamed of Jack, not as a 14-year-old boy, but as a man that was always two years older than him. Cash once recalled, “His beard is gray now. His hair is gray. He’s always been there. He’s aged with me.”

Cash went on to say, “In Betty Ford, I went through a thing called grief therapy to dissolve and get rid of any unresolved grief I might have for anybody. And I went through that with Jack about 40 years past the fact.”

It might be a stretch to say that resolving his guilt and his grief over the death of Jack is what finally resulted in Johnny Cash getting sober for good. It wasn’t until 1992 after Cash submitted himself to the Loma Linda Behavioral Medicine Center that he would have his final official rehab stint.

But what is unquestionable is that Johnny Cash carried the memory and legacy of Jack along with him throughout his career. Though people tend to gravitate toward Cash’s misbehavior when remembering his personal history, it was also things like his prison concerts, his Native American advocacy, and most evidently, his ministry where Jack’s legacy was breathed through Johnny Cash’s life.

Along with all the Gospel music Johnny Cash recorded, he co-wrote and narrated a film called Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus in 1973. He also published a Christian novel in 1986 called Man in White. Cash also participated in Christian outreach throughout his career, while also always fessing up to his contradictions as a man, once calling himself, “the biggest sinner of them all.”

On one shoulder was perhaps the true nature of Johnny Cash personified as the devil, while on the other shoulder was his brother Jack, always pushing Cash back towards the straight and narrow. It was this constant push and pull, and internal conflict that resulted in the conflicted and complicated character that was Johnny Cash. It was also this complexity that made the Johnny Cash character so intriguing to music fans around the world. This conflict and pain came through in his music, and created comfort and healing for many.


TNN, On The Record with Jack Emory, October 22nd, 1997

Cash: The Autobiography (2003)

Johnny Cash: The Life and Legacy of the Man in Black (2018)

© 2024 Saving Country Music