There are painfully few real, lasting love stories in showbiz. In fact, celebrity couplings often seem to end in divorce, heartbreak, and a protracted lawsuit. But country music legends Johnny Cash and June Carter definitely bucked that trend. And even now, they serve as a touching reminder to the world that love really can last if you work hard at it. Indeed, one letter that Cash sent to Carter in 1994 proves that the Man in Black wasn’t just an amazing singer and songwriter, but that he was also a deeply romantic soul.
Revelations from the Cash family
The letter is enough to reduce even the most hard-hearted person to tears. And while it may have been written in 1994, it didn’t come to public attention until a good few years later. Specifically, it appeared in the 2011 book House of Cash, which was penned by the person who knew the couple best: their son John. Telling their full story wasn't so easy, however.
Not your average romance
The Carter-Cash love saga is so complex and chaotic it could almost have come from the pages of a novel. The pair first set eyes on each other in 1956 at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. On this particular evening, June Carter was performing as a backup singer for rock ‘n’ roll legend Elvis Presley.
A broken marriage
And while the two fell in love instantly, there was just one problem: Cash already had a wife, Vivian Liberto. Needless to say, then, that Liberto was the one who lost out in this scenario. What’s more, she blamed Carter for breaking up the marriage. “I should have been relentless at saving it,” Liberto wrote in her 2005 autobiography I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny, “as relentless as June was at destroying it.”
The inspiration behind "Ring of Fire"
Furthermore, Carter’s feelings for Cash ended up sparking one of the greatest country songs of all time in “Ring of Fire.” And in its lyrics, Carter quite dramatically described her emotions toward the still-married object of her affections. She explained to CMT in 2003, “I’m in a ring of fire... It’s going to kill me, because I would never have the nerve to tell him, nor do I want to tell him, nor do I want anybody to even know I’ve got these feelings.”
But she did have those feelings, and so did he. In 1968, moreover, Cash popped the question to Carter while an audience of 7,000 fans watched. And, just two weeks, later the pair married. It wasn’t all perfect, though. Cash had had to propose to her several times before she said yes, and there was also reportedly a string of women Cash had led on before the marriage, too.
And although there was no doubting the affection Carter and Cash had for each other, there were certainly problems. Even as Cash performed his famous set at Folsom Prison with Carter by his side, for example, he was struggling to overcome his demons. And although Carter tried to help him in his struggle against drug and alcohol addiction, she herself would later prove to be prone to substance abuse as well.
Country power couple
Despite these troubles, however, there’s no doubt that the Cash-Carter partnership created some of the greatest country music of all time. The couple won two Grammys – one in 1967 and one in 1970 – for the duets “Jackson” and “If I Were a Carpenter,” respectively. Essentially, they were a power couple, long before the term existed. Still, their careers weren't all that mattered to them.
In 1970, meanwhile, the pair had a son, John Carter Cash. Unfortunately, addiction still had a strong grip on both of them at the time. “My father, he wouldn’t be belligerent or violent,” John explained in his 2007 book Anchored In Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash. “It was never that way. He just would simply sort of slip out of the picture. It happened the same way with my mother.”
A family on the brink
Obviously, but unfortunately, the life of young John Carter Cash wasn’t always easy. His parents argued a lot, even around their son, and although there was never physical violence, there was plenty of verbal cruelty. At one point, Carter even requested her attorney put together divorce papers before later changing her mind.
Finding a better path
But gradually things changed. And to this day, Carter is credited with doing the work that moved both herself and Cash into a more stable place. “It wasn’t until the late 1980s that they became the idyllic couple people imagined all along,” Cash biographer Robert Hilburn told The New York Times in 2013.
But when Carter and Cash finally settled into being that “idyllic” couple, they were a really good one. And their son knew it, too. “My parents’ love for each other lasted throughout their whole life,” Cash said in 2007. “They didn’t give up... They accepted each other totally unconditionally.”
A love letter for the ages
And the world has been fascinated by that love for years now. It’s been the subject of many movies, including the Oscar-nominated Walk the Line. But there’s perhaps no better illustration of it than the aforementioned 1994 love letter, a handwritten note that in 2015 was considered by some to be the best love letter of all time.
A birthday blessing
“Happy Birthday Princess,” Cash wrote. “We get old and get used to each other. We think alike. We read each others [sic] minds. We know what the other wants without asking. Sometimes we irritate each other a little bit. Maybe sometimes take each other for granted.”
Pouring his heart out
“But once in awhile, like today,” it went on, “I meditate on it and realize how lucky I am to share my life with the greatest woman I ever met. You still fascinate and inspire me. You influence me for the better. You’re the object of my desire, the #1 Earthly reason for my existence. I love you very much. Happy Birthday Princess. John.” That wasn't the only romantic document their son released either.
A Valentine's Day message
John Cash's book was full of little insights into what his parents' marriage had been like. And, among other things, it included a valentine sent from Cash to Carter in 1987. This sentimental piece of memorabilia contains a short but touching poem: “June, Valentines [sic] is fine. But you being mine is more fine. Thine, John.” These romantic messages made a big splash.
Hearts melting all over the world
British insurance company Beagle Street commissioned a poll to determine which love letter was the greatest of all time, in celebration of Valentine’s Day and to encourage people to be romantic with their loved ones. Also included on the list was a letter from Henry VII to Anne Boleyn – although, of course, that relationship didn’t end so well.
Keeping priorities in order
What’s more, it’s easy to see why people find love letters so beautiful, and why we obsess over them to the degree that we even pit them against each other. In today’s rushed society, people barely have time to send regular letters anymore, let alone love letters. And thoughtful notes like Cash’s remind us of what’s really important in life.
Together until the end
And as with all great romances, the Johnny Cash and June Carter one lasted until death did they part. In May 2003, at the age of 73, June Carter passed away from complications arising from heart-valve replacement surgery. Her husband and their family were at her side when she died.
Always by the other's side
Cash wasn’t long behind his wife: he passed away just four months later. The official cause was a diabetes-related illness, but people have always theorized that he really died of a broken heart. He’s buried in Hendersonville, Tennessee, right next to the person whom in 1994 he called “the greatest woman I ever met.” Cash got the happy ending he deserved, especially after weathering so much hardship in his life...
The origin of his facial scar
The musician had more than his fair share of secrets — some were plain to see on his face. Cash’s signature scar only added to his mystique, but he didn’t get it in a fight. He got it via a facial cyst. However, one story goes that the doctor who operated on him was drunk and botched the procedure. Reportedly, too, some Cash impersonators tried to make their own scars using more traditional means.
He became a target of racist campaigners
In 1965 a newsletter affiliated with the KKK started a hate campaign that said Cash’s then-wife, Vivian Liberto, was black. The racist campaign kicked up a gear two years later. In her 2008 memoir, I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny, Liberto remembered, “Johnny and I received death threats, and an already shameful situation was made infinitely worse.”
His real name isn't Johnny
Johnny Cash’s parents couldn’t decide what to call him. His mother wanted “Rivers,” after her maiden name, and his father wanted “Ray,” after himself. In the end, they settled just for the initials “J.R.” That sounds odd, but it was actually pretty common in that era. J.R. didn’t take the name “John” until he joined the Air Force.
His brother died horribly
Cash’s older brother Jack suffered a terrible accident at the age of 14. On May 13, 1944, he fell into a table saw while working cutting lumber and died a week later. The younger Cash was devastated and never forgot the incident. When he himself was an old man, he said he looked forward to meeting Jack again in heaven.
He wasn't only a musician
Cash was incredibly religious. Although he went back and forth about what bits of the Bible he believed, he was absolutely God-fearing, and during the 1970s, he began studying theology with the aim of becoming a minister. He achieved this quite easily and was baptized in the Jordan River. Later on, he was the minister at his own daughter’s wedding.
He was once sued for a serious crime
In the mid-1970s, Cash fired his bandmate Marshal Grant after some money went missing, and Grant turned around and sued Cash for embezzlement. It turned out quite a lot of money had mysteriously disappeared — right at the time Cash got back into heavy drug use. In the end, everything was settled out of court, but Cash and Grant were never exactly friends again.
He was arrested — a lot
Johnny Cash truly lived a wild rock 'n' roll lifestyle. He was arrested no less than seven times throughout his life, mostly for substance-related offenses. One of these arrests was for picking flowers — he drunkenly wandered into someone’s yard and began messing with their plants. He was arrested and put in a cell, and spent the night with a broken toe after kicking the cell door.
He might have tried to marry Johnny Horton’s widow
In 1960 Cash’s friend, successful musician Johnny Horton, died in a car accident. Cash rushed to comfort his widow, Billie Jean. And according to the writers of the 2019 book Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon, this led to “a whirlwind, madcap courtship culminating in mutual expression of love — and a marriage proposal from the already married Cash.” But Billie Jean apparently turned him down.
He was a prolific writer — and we don't mean his songs
Cash had a side hustle: writing prose. While he was in the Air Force, Cash sent an article to the military newspaper, and it was published. So he continued on from there. In addition to writing many of his own songs, he wrote two autobiographies and the Christianity-themed novel Man in White.
He wrote a bad song on purpose
As the 1980s came around, Cash decided that his record label Columbia wasn’t serving him well. So he hatched a plan to write a song so hilariously terrible that Columbia would let him out of his contract. This was “Chicken in Black,” pretty much a straight-up parody of the whole Johnny Cash story. That’s certainly one way of doing things.
He didn't treat his friend’s ashes particularly well
In 1996 Cash’s friend Faron Young, a popular music artist whose health had been in decline, died by suicide. Cash asked if he might be allowed to sprinkle some of Young’s ashes in his garden, but alas the ceremony went wrong. Some of the ashes went on Cash’s car instead, and he ended up windscreen-wiping his buddy’s earthly remains away.
He met June Carter at the wrong time
In 1956 singer Carl Smith — and his wife June Carter — met Cash. It was love at first sight, right in front of Smith, even though Cash was still married to Vivian. In 2000 Carter told Rolling Stone, “It was not a convenient time for me to fall in love with him, and it was not a convenient time for him to fall in love with me.”
He had help getting off drugs
In 2002 Cash chatted about his past with CNN’s Larry King. He revealed, “The commissioner of mental health for the state of Tennessee, he had befriended me. And he said, ‘I will help you save your life if you want to save it.’” The man gave Cash 32 days of counseling and finally convinced him to flush away his pills.
Hotel managers probably weren't Johnny Cash fans
Hotel owners must have dreaded the arrival of Johnny Cash. Reportedly, one time he put cherry bombs in a hotel toilet, and another time he stabbed an establishment’s reproduction Mona Lisa painting. Yet the oddest Johnny Cash hotel story regards him gathering up 500 baby chicks and letting them run wild around the building.
He picked up a bad habit as a child
Today the image of a pre-teen smoking would be quite shocking, but not in the era Cash grew up in. He was reportedly only 12 years old when he took up the habit, and it would stay with him for the rest of his life. Luckily, however, it didn’t seem to affect his amazing singing voice.
“The Man Comes Around” was inspired by a weird dream about the Queen
In his 2002 interview with Larry King, Cash revealed the origins of “The Man Comes Around.” He said, “I got the idea from a dream that I had — I dreamed I saw Queen Elizabeth. I dreamed I went into Buckingham Palace, and there she sat on the floor. And she looked up at me and said, ‘Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.’”
His wife wasn’t happy about his married behavior
In the parts of her autobiography that dealt with her marriage to Cash, Vivian Liberto wrote, “Two things were causing trouble: [June Carter] and drugs. But why confuse the issue?” She also slammed Carter as a “hypocrite” who “claimed to be a God-fearing Christian woman, but I didn’t believe it.” When she finally divorced Cash, Liberto labeled drug abuse and extramarital affairs as the cause.
He hid his drugs in unusual places
Some 1965-era cops might have gotten a surprise, or maybe not, when they searched Cash’s guitar case in El Paso. There were drugs in there, and a lot of them: 668 dexadrin and 475 Equanil, according to the charges. Cash pleaded guilty and was given a fine plus a 30-day suspended sentence.
His relationship with his father wasn’t what people think
In the 2005 Cash biopic, Walk the Line, Cash’s relationship with his father is shown as an abusive one. But his own son says that isn’t true. In 2015 John Carter Cash told Rolling Stone, “My father was always respectful to my grandfather. I really wanted that to be known because I never saw him disrespect my grandfather, and I never saw them have a cross word.”
He did hard labor as a child
Cash went to work on the family farm when he was still very young. The Cashes were poor, and everyone had to pull together. The young J.R. would help in the cotton fields, sometimes even eating the cotton buds. Sometimes the precious fields would flood, which later inspired Cash’s song “Five Feet High and Rising.”
He was close to a controversial religious figure
As Cash got older, he began to fear for his immortal soul. Though he didn’t think he could ever stop taking drugs, he turned to Christianity to help him. He teamed up with evangelist Billy Graham and began preaching and performing at evangelical events. Reportedly, Graham has a voice cameo in Cash’s “The Preacher Said, ‘Jesus Said.’”
He discovered Elvis had been writing to his wife
Elvis apparently held quite the flame for June Carter, even though she was married to his buddy Johnny Cash. Many years after Elvis died, Cash found in an attic a stash of love letters from the King to Carter, and immediately had them destroyed. However, in his 1991 autobiography, he did say, “Elvis was my friend, flesh and blood in real life.”
It was rumored he was a former prisoner
Thanks in part to his famous 1968 concert at Folsom Prison, and the other prison shows he put on, rumors spread that Cash himself was a former convict. This wasn’t true, but it was true that Cash had been in trouble with the law a lot. He had such a hardened image that the untruth stuck.
His first wife turned down his money
Vivian Liberto never wanted to divorce Cash, despite everything. She badly wanted him to stay. Eventually, Cash offered her a huge sum of money — half a million dollars — to split from him. She refused. Her Catholic faith figured into that decision, but she couldn’t hold on to the failed marriage forever. She divorced Cash in 1966.]
He was friends with various presidents
Cash apparently never once exercised his right to vote, but he was friends with presidents from both political parties. He maintained relationships with George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter. Carter was, in fact, a distant relative of his beloved wife June. Yet he was said to never entirely trust any of them.
He had a serious neurodegenerative disease
In his elder years, Cash began suffering tremors and blackouts as well as major bouts of pneumonia. His doctors didn’t know what he had. He was diagnosed first with Parkinson’s disease, then Shy-Drager Syndrome (now known as called Multiple System Atrophy). Finally, he was diagnosed with autonomic neuropathy, a condition associated with diabetes. It was complications of diabetes that eventually killed him.
He was once attacked by an exotic animal
Cash happened to own a recording studio that had an exotic animal park attached — not a good idea, as he soon discovered. An African ostrich by the name of Waldo lived at the park, and one day it went for Cash. He was left with five broken ribs, internal bleeding, and very possibly a new respect for ostriches.
He dug his own brother’s grave
Cash went through more horrible things in his childhood than anyone should have to. After the brutal death of his older brother, Cash headed out to the graveyard and started helping the men there dig. When it was time for the actual funeral service, he was dirty and his foot was sore from treading on a nail. He was only 12.
A cellmate refused to believe his identity
During one of Cash’s numerous run-ins with the police, he was thrown into a Nevada holding cell. His cellmate happened to be an intimidating lumberjack who didn’t believe for one moment that this man was the real Johnny Cash. Cash sang his most famous songs to him all night to no avail.
He fell into a coma and heard voices
During his 2002 Larry King interview, Cash talked about how pneumonia had put him in a coma and what that had been like. He said, “I remember voices in the room. I remember things they were saying… And after a while, you know, the conversation inevitably has to come around to, 'Well, if he dies, this or that,' you know?... And I’m lying there hearing that.”
He proposed to June on stage
Not all of the biopic Walk the Line was accurate, but one thing that may have seemed to have been invented for the movie actually did take place. After being turned down by June Carter multiple times, Cash proposed to her live on stage in front of 7,000 people in Ontario. This time she said yes.
There’s a spider named after him
Several years after Cash passed, a new species of tarantula was discovered near Folsom Prison, the institution that he had given a place in music history. So there was only one thing scientists could call the new spider: Aphonopelma johnnycashi. And just like Cash, it too “wears” black as it gets older.
He didn’t think “I Walk the Line” was good
When Cash spoke to Larry King in 2002, he revealed he hadn’t liked “I Walk the Line” at first. He said, “It was in my head too long, I just didn’t think it was that good of a song. I just didn’t think anyone would like it. I didn’t like the arraignment. I didn’t like the sound I had on the record.” But of course, it was a massive hit.
His last public performance was very touching
Cash’s final public performance was on July 5, 2003. It was just a couple of months after June Carter had passed away. He gave a speech before singing “Ring of Fire” and said, “We connect somewhere between here and heaven, she came down for a short visit, I guess, from heaven to visit with me tonight to give me courage and inspiration like she always has.”
He accidentally killed some endangered birds
In many ways, Cash didn’t seem to have an awful lot of luck with birds. In 1965, a time when Cash was still addicted to drugs, he went on a fishing trip and accidentally started a forest fire, although how exactly he did it is unknown. Unfortunately, this resulted in the deaths of 49 endangered condors. The federal government sued him, much to his displeasure.
He wore black for a reason
Why was Cash “The Man in Black?” Well, the reason is much more simple than you might think. Larry King put that question to him in 2002, and he answered, “I wear black because I’m comfortable in it. But then in the summertime when it’s hot I’m comfortable in light blue.” And black also helped him hide any marks on his clothes.