Johnny Cash Was a Secret Published Novelist

Johnny Cash’s legend has outlived him, and the famous country music star has managed to remain relevant across generations and genres. Part of Cash’s transcendent influence is wrapped up in his larger-than-life persona. As was captured by the biopic Walk the Line, Cash had dark periods in his life where he spiraled out of control. His bad-boy persona helped shape people’s appreciation for his art, and his relationships — especially with June Carter — became a major part of his tale as well. 

With so many stories and memories of the late singer swirling around the pop culture landscape, it’s hard to imagine there’s much mystery left to his legend, but many fans don’t know that he was secretly a published novelist. 

Johnny Cash standing with hands on hips, turned to the camera, in front of a watefront
Johnny Cash | Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Johnny Cash had humble beginnings

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Cash was born in Arkansas in 1932. His parents were sharecroppers, and his poor upbringing helped shape his view of the world. From a young age, he was working alongside his parents to help pay off their debts, and music was an escape from a life filled with hardships. As Biography reports, Cash was writing songs by the age of 12, and his mother scraped together enough money to pay for singing lessons to support his passion. Just a few lessons in, however, the teacher told Cash his biggest asset was his natural voice with its unique gravelly quality. 

After high school, Cash enrolled in the Air Force and served until 1954. Upon discharge, he married his first wife, Vivian Liberto, and started working as an appliance salesman. This work connected him with some mechanics who were also musically inclined, and they eventually formed a band. Cash was the frontman for the group, and they convinced Sun Records to give them a contract, paving the way for Cash’s rise to fame that would span decades. 

Storytelling was part of Johnny Cash’s art 

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It’s easy to focus on Cash’s contribution to the music scene through his haunting vocals, but as a lyricist, Cash showcased another of his talents: storytelling. Cash was writing the songs for his band Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. From his earliest contributions, the makings of Cash’s narrative appreciation were visible. One of Cash’s earliest songs is called “Hey Porter,” and it tells the tale of a passenger on a train barreling ever closer to his home in the South. 

In addition to his lyrical work, Cash frequently wrote letters to his friends and family. As Biography reports, he was a deeply introspective man who also wrote letters to himself and penned two autobiographies longhand on lined paper. The first was called Man in Black and was published in 1975 and the second was Cash: The Autobiography, published in 1997. 

Johnny Cash published a novel 

While many people know about his autobiographical works and his writing credits for many popular song lyrics, fewer know that Cash also penned a fictional novel. The work was called Man in White and was published in 1986, more than 10 years after his own Man in Black. Throughout the 1980s, Cash became deeply interested in Christianity and the Bible, and this work reflects those interests. 

Man in White is a six-year account of the apostle Paul that covers his conversion on the road to Damascus. Many could see clear parallels between Paul’s road to redemption and Cash’s own efforts to clean up his life. The novel received some critical acclaim — mostly from religious critics — and it was definitely a point of pride for Cash that stands out as unique among his many accomplishments.