The Truth About Johnny Cash's Name

John Denver was actually Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., while Doris Day was born Doris Kappelhoff, and Johnny Paycheck started out as Donald Lytle. It should come as no surprise, then, that according to Biography, when Johnny Cash first signed with Sun Records, company head Sam Phillips was skeptical about the "Cash" moniker. 

Now, name aside, Cash was a lot of things to a lot of people. Later in his career, he would commonly be referred to as The Man in Black, and while Cash did always wear black toward the end, this tendency — which wasn't quite so consistent in his early days — was rooted in pure practicality: When you're on the road touring, black doesn't show dirt and you can go longer between loads of laundry. He was also associated with incarceration, famously playing a show that was seen by inmate Merle Haggard in prison, and generally credited with inspiring Haggard to lean into a musical career. Cash certainly sold a lot of copies of "At Folsom Prison," and while the surname Cash would seem like another self-created part of his image, the truth was a lot weirder.

Cash, yes. Johnny, not so much

In fact, his last name really was Cash. It's the "Johnny" part that's problematic. 

The exact details of how Johnny Cash got his original first name differ from account to account, but the consistent fact is that from birth to high school graduation, he was known as J.R. Cash. Just the initials. Nothing to go with them, though it's said that his father's nickname for him was "Shoo-Doo." Allegedly, Cash's parents disagreed on what to name the boy. According to Biography, when Cash was born in 1932, his mother wanted to name him Rivers, after her family name, as mothers sometimes do, and his father wanted to name him Ray, after himself, as fathers sometimes do. Other accounts, such as Greg Laurie's Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon, say that his mother wanted to name him "John Rivers Cash," while Ray wanted to name him after Buffalo Bill Cody. A third telling, from Steve Turner's The Man Called CASH, claims they simply couldn't agree between "John Ray" or "Ray John," so they did what parents sometimes do, ended up compromising, and just referring to him as J.R., simply enough.

Having a name made from initials wasn't an uncommon naming practice around those parts, but it was a little problematic when J.R. went to sign his enlistment papers for the Air Force. The recruiter, bless his heart, wouldn't accept somebody with just initials for a first name. So, in 1950, J.R. Cash became John R. Cash. He was 71 when he died, and if you visit his gravestone in Hendersonville, Tennessee, John R. Cash is the name you'll see, according to Find a Grave.