Johnny Cash’s First Nickname Was A Bit Darker Than “The Man In Black”

Johnny Cash country music
Johnny Cash

Sure, country music artists have their fair share of nicknames (you can read the best ones here) but none stuck quite like “The Man In Black”.

Johnny Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas but moved to Dryess when his family qualified for an FDR New Deal program which provided land and some farm equipment to families struggling due to the Great Depression. While both of his parents were extremely hard workers, they never were never truly able to pull themselves out of poverty, which meant Johnny was exposed to hardships from a very young age.

The 1937 Ohio River Flood, economic fallout from the depression, and the horrific death of his brother in an table saw accident are a few of the biggest moments that lead young Johnny, known locally as “J.R.” to develop an emotional feel of the world that would fuel his songwriting and philanthropic efforts for the rest of his life.

Obviously, Cash got his iconic nickname because he pretty much exclusively wore black clothing, both on and off stage, but his 1971 song “Man In Black” speaks on the symbolic nature of this choice:

“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner who is long paid for his crime
But is there because he’s a victim of the times…

I wear it for the sick and lonely old
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men

And I wear it for the thousands who have died
Believin’ that the Lord was on their side
I wear it for another hundred-thousand who have died
Believin’ that we all were on their side”

It’s a powerful message and certainly the one our minds immediately flip to when we see his black suits, but according to a biography titled Johnny Cash: The Life by longtime manager Lou Robin, there was a much more practical reason for the somber attire. It was the only color he could match with his first bandmates and it was easier to keep clean during a demanding tour schedule.

Does it make sense? You betcha, but it seems he grew into the wearing it for the downtrodden later in life, when he had a bit more fame and had the opportunity to move towards the flamboyant rhinestone suits worn by many of his contemporaries (and let’s thank the good Lord above that he stuck to his guns on this one…)

Due to this all-black fashion choice, his friends and collogues initially gave him a nickname that was fitting, but a bit darker than the one written in the history books: “The Undertaker”

It’s easy to see why that one didn’t grip the public like “The Man In Black” did… Sure, the WWE wrestler made it his own (and even used Johnny Cash’s “Ain’t No Grave” for his walkout) but especially back in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, I don’t know if the public at large would be so accepting of that moniker for country music’s biggest star.

We don’t know exactly how or when the change to “The Man In Black” occurred, but by the time most of America knew his name, “The Undertaker” was long forgotten.

Would college me put a poster of Johnny Cash with “The Undertaker” written on it on my wall? You betcha, but safe to say I think it all worked out better for the legendary “Man In Black”.

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock