Firsts to Know: Johnny Cash

by Jim Casey

A great American once said, “If you ain’t FIRST, you’re last.” We happen to agree. To celebrate being first, we’ve got 10 Firsts to Know about the legendary Johnny Cash. Why not 11? Because going to 11 is for rock stars—and we’re all about country music.

1. First Name: J.R. Cash

As the story goes, Johnny’s mom wanted to name him John, while his father rallied for Ray. They settled on J.R., which is the name on Johnny’s high school diploma. When Cash joined the Air Force in 1951, he amended it to John R. Cash. After signing with Sun Records in 1955, he became our beloved Johnny.

2. First Album: Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar!

Johnny dropped his debut album, Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar!, in 1957. The 12-song offering featured four Top 20 singles, including “Cry Cry Cry” (No. 14), “Folsom Prison Blues” (No. 3), “So Doggone Lonesome” (No. 4), and “I Walk the Line” (No. 1). Don’t sleep on deep cut “If the Good Lord’s Willing,” which was penned by the incomparable Jerry “The Guitar Man” Reed.

3. First No. 1 Single: “I Walk the Line”

Johnny reached the top of the charts with “I Walk the Line” in 1956. Cash penned the song as a devotional ode to his first wife, Vivian Liberto. Johnny recorded the hit at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn., with producer Sam Phillips and the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant).  

4. First Wife: Vivian Liberto

Johnny, who served in the U.S Air Force from 1951–1954, met Vivian Liberto in 1951 and briefly courted her before being deployed to West Germany. Hundreds of letters back and forth across the pond must have done the trick. One month after his honorable discharge, Johnny married Vivian in San Antonio, Texas, in 1954. The couple welcomed four children—Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara—before divorcing in 1967.

CIRCA 1957: Country singer/songwriter Johnny Cash sits on a bed tying his guitar strap as his first wife Vivian Liberto looks on in circa 1957. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

5. First Sidebar: Dwight Yoakam

Cash’s “I Walk the Line” was the first song Dwight Yoakam learned to play on the guitar. “It was the first song where I could change from chord to chord while not losing the meter,” said Dwight to Country Weekly magazine in 2001. Dwight learned the tune “after church on a Sunday night. I was about 8 years old, sitting in the backseat of a 1960 Oldsmobile 98.” What does this prove? Even 8-year-old Dwight Yoakam was cooler than we’ll ever be. The real question remains: Was 8-year-old Dwight capable of these moves?

6. First Child: Rosanne Cash

Singer/songwriter/author . . .  Rosanne Cash is a total badass in her own right. In addition to her 11 No. 1 singles on the country charts, Rosanne has earned four Grammy Awards and induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Rosanne’s Grammy Award-winning song, “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” should be on everyone’s road-trip playlist.  

7. First Impressions: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”

Johnny typically stepped onstage and introduced himself to concertgoers with four word: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” No fireworks, pyro, or smoke needed. Just a direct, clear, concise salutation. Isn’t that what our fourth-grade English teachers taught us?

8. First Movie: Five Minutes to Live

Cash starred as Johnny Cabot, an unsavory character who holds a bank president’s wife hostage, in the 1961 low-budget crime drama, Five Minutes to Live. The cult classic has a 50% score on Rotten Tomatoes based on four reviews. The flick also stars Country Music Hall of Fame member Merle Travis and 6-year-old Ronny Howard of Andy Griffith fame. Spoiler alert, Five Minutes to Live is 80 minutes long.

9. First Grammy: “Jackson”

Johnny’s collaboration with his second wife, June Carter Cash, on “Jackson” earned the couple the Grammy for Best Country & Western Performance – Duet, Trio, Group in 1968. Of course, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon breathed new life into the tune in the 2005 biopic, Walk the Line, which followed Johnny’s romance with June.

10. First Taco Bell Commercial: 1992

1992 was a great year to be at Taco Bell. For starters, tacos only cost 59 cents. Or, as Johnny said in his Taco Bell commercial, “just a little cash.” Yes, yes, even the Man in Black wasn’t above shilling for Taco Bell. Before you judge him, remember, a lot of country stars have sold their deep-fried souls to the fast-food devil, including Willie, Waylon, Reba, and—the king of them all—Darius Rucker.