Johnny Cash Had 2 Terrible Jobs That Were Worse Than Working on His Family’s Farm

Johnny Cash eventually became a country music legend, but he didn’t have it easy growing up. His family struggled to make ends meet during the Great Depression. His dream of making music for a living took a hit when his vocal coach told him to give up on singing. Cash purchased a guitar and started making music while in the Air Force, but not before he worked two terrible jobs that were far worse than the back-breaking work picking cotton on the family farm.

Johnny Cash plays Johnny Cabot in the 1961 movie 'Five Minutes to Live.
Johnny Cash in the movie ‘Five Minutes to Live’ | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Johnny Cash’s first tough job was picking cotton

Cash grew up on a cotton farm in Arkansas. The family worked the fields every day, planting and tending to crops. The downside was it was tedious, back-breaking labor. The upside was that Cash discovered his love of music as he spent the days singing gospel hymns, folk songs, and other music to pass the time.

Another downside to the cotton-picking life? The Cash family still needed money to make ends meet. His older brother, Jack, took a job sawing wood in a school shop to help. A gruesome accident led to his tragic death, but not before his dying words sparked lifelong inspiration in Johnny Cash

Cash took that inspiration with him to the Air Force, where he had more time and money to explore his musical talents. He launched his legendary music career only after he took on two jobs that he said were far worse than stooping and picking cotton all day.

Cash’s jobs working on an assembly line and at a margarine factory were worse than cotton picking

Cash left Arkansas when he enlisted in the Air Force, and soon after that, he started working on his music career. The Man in Black’s life story tends to leave out some of the details, though. Like the fact he first tried his hand at two jobs that were somehow worse than picking cotton.

Cash took a job on a car assembly line in Pontiac, Michigan. It might have helped inspire his song “One Piece at a Time,” but the job was brutal. Cash lasted three weeks and wrote of the horrible conditions, per Johnny Cash: The Life and Legacy of the Man in Black author Alan Light:

“The job itself was horrible [and] the accommodations no better: A boardinghouse crammed tight with men who drank and cussed and carried on more than my tender young country sensibilities could stand.” 

Johnny Cash describes his job working on a car assembly line

Cash’s second attempt at blue-collar labor was no better. He took a job at a margarine plant, and even his history of picking cotton in the beating sun didn’t prepare him for the heat in the factory. “[I’m] working for low money in filth beyond belief and heat I’d never imagined possible,” Cash said, per Light. 

Cash somehow found two jobs worse than picking cotton — working on the assembly line and in a margarine factory. After that, active duty in the Air Force must have seemed like a piece of cake.

The Man in Black smartly pursued his passion for music

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While serving in the Air Force, Cash accidentally discovered backmasking long before it became a staple of psychedelic music. He largely stuck to country music during his career, and there was nothing wrong with that. 

He placed 42 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Cash held his own while competing with artists such as The Beatles and Rolling Stones on the Hot 100. He was more prolific within his genre.

Cash saw 119 songs make the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart across his six-decade career. Nine reached No. 1, including “Ring of Fire” and the gospel-tinged “Daddy Sang Bass.” He also had a Billboard 200 No. 1 album with 1969’s At San Quentin. That record and the similarly-titled At Folsom Prison went triple platinum, per the Recording Industry Association of America. 

After Johnny Cash had two of the worst jobs imaginable, topping the charts might have seemed all too easy for the Man in Black.

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