In the early '80s, country legend Johnny Cash had hit hard times. Drug addiction, a trip to Betty Ford and the fading of his music career diminished the great man. Around this time, he recorded a series of songs with producer Billy Sherrill. Many of them never saw the light of day, until now. This week, Cash's posthumous album "Out Among the Stars" drops. In honor of the release, we're republishing our November 1970 profile of the country King. Enjoy the full story here and to read every article the magazine has ever published—from 1953 until today—visit the complete archive at iplayboy.com.
Pandemonium. Heavy-set man bounding on stage. "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." Rolling applause like combers rushing in; shrieks, catcalls, cowpoke hoots, pigpen yeehoos and, in the audience, the first coming of witnesses to some subtle but understood faith commences, a faded-cotton crewcut procession toward the stage, mild-mannered plain folk coming up to have themselves a Brownie snap or two of Johnny Cash.
Sometimes the photographers go back to their seats, the way they're supposed to. Sometimes they don't. They stand there reverently, arms crossed, mouths open, eyes shining in the hot pink floods, expecting him to ... to what?
Big fella all in black, frock coat and striped trousers, ruffled shirt, high-polished boots. Big head, the top part half a size too big for the bottom part. Craggy face, ugly-sexy; restless body, spreading himself like hard butter on soft bread, tearing holes here and there in the early evening.
In the past few years, Johnny Cash has been doing about 200 road dates annually, playing to audiences at fairs, prisons, Army bases, colleges and civic auditoriums. But in the summer, it's mostly fairs. Allentownpa. Cheyennewyo. Abilenetex. Topekakans. Billingsmont. Jacksonmich. County fair. State fair. Mid-America fair. Johnny Cash sings: "After seven years behind these bars together, I'll miss you more than a brother when you go, when you go.... / Say hello to Dad and shake his poor hard-workin' hand, / And send a picture of Mother if you can." It's a music in which soul and self-pity wear each other's best garments, a music that places a premium on sincerity—and Johnny Cash is nothing if not sincere—and on humility; and Johnny Cash, after a dozen years of country-music stardom and now on the verge of international superstardom, is still just folks, still just a good ole country boy.
Carl Perkins, the country-music star whose hit Blue Suede Shoes was number one on all the charts back in 1956, says, "There's only one difference that success and money have made in Johnny Cash and that is, back in the early days, this man wanted to do some of the things he has done now, such as helpin' underprivileged people and other good things that you don't read a lot about that he loves to do."
Backstage, Cash restlessly prowls along the green cement-block corridor like a circuit-riding preacher who senses the imminence of hell-fire. His nostrils flare. He strides down the hall, clasping his hands together and tensing them forward, over his head, tensing and exercising his shoulders and neck. Electricians and house cops come up to him tentatively, shuffling their feet. He is friendly but unsmiling. His answers are polite, like scissors cutting him away from their approach. He holds his head back. He is aloof, stern, withholding.
This is probably because the demands on him are high even by star standards. There is a constant procession of people backstage with some need or other that he is expected to fulfill. He cuts radio advertisements for The Walter Reade Organization, which is distributing a film on his life. He gives interviews to disc jockeys, station managers, magazine writers. There are trivial needs, such as autographs or snapshots; more serious ones, such as an offer from a Fender company representative to make him up a special guitar with his name written on the box somewhere. Or more serious ones yet, such as the constant and numerous offers of love and adoration. Little wonder he pulls back, protecting himself, becoming distant, ungiving.
Onstage, he sings: "When I was just a baby, my momma told me, 'Son, / Always be a good boy; don't ever play with guns.' / But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.'
Johnny Cash's gravelly baritone voice is a repository of untold sorrows. It sounds leaky, near to tearburst. Even the happy songs have a tremulous, hurt quality. This bouncy number is Folsom Prison Blues, an early ballad that is now something of a theme song. Cash has a special feeling for prisons and prisoners. Despite the generally accepted belief that he is a former con, he has never been sent to prison. "Been in jail," he says diffidently. "There's a big difference." Cash looks mean and dour. Could he really shoot a man just to watch him die? Maybe. Has he, say, had a fistfight since he's started singing? That would be more than 14 years. "Naw. Naw, not really."
A bystander sidles up to me and says of him, "Honesty. When the guy sings, you feel that he's been there." Ahhh. Been there. Been where? Maybe, in a way, he has, though. Prisons make a nice metaphor and his constant somber aspect bears it out. Dark, brooding eyes. A hard, sensitive face that floats like an island on an ocean of unshed tears as he searches out people's faces, weighing them on some scale that makes his lids heavy, perhaps with sorrow. He is virtually devoid of mannerisms; his gaze is straightforward and unnerving. He is an unadorned spirit. But he does flick at himself a lot, rubbing, stroking, pestering his face impatiently, like a man back from the dead, flicking away cobwebs.
He has had a tough life. He has seen good friends die. He doesn't like to show it, but he takes it hard, very hard. Country star Johnny Horton died in an automobile crash in November 1960. More recently, guitarist Luther Perkins, a good old friend from the early days, burned to death after falling asleep in bed with a lit cigarette. Singer Roy Orbison's two kids were killed in a house fire. Cash is cosponsoring with Vanderbilt University in Nashville an intensive-care unit for burn victims. He also does many benefits. Each one costs about $5000 in out-of-pocket expenses. He is a generous man. He gives away good Martin guitars on a whim.
Stories about Johnny Cash circulate backstage. Mostly about how good he is or how much people love him or the affection and awe his associates feel for him. "Sometimes we'll go fishin' and not talk," says Bob Wooten, the young guitarist with the Tennessee Three. "When I'm around him I get tongue-tied. It's like I want to be careful, I don't want to say the wrong thing." Wooten is shy and idolatrous. Marshall Grant, the group's bassist, who has been with Cash since the beginning and is one of his closest friends, thinks John Cash has been put on this earth for some holy purpose that hasn't yet been manifest. It's hard to believe that none of the 12 associates who make up the Johnny Cash show (the four Statler Brothers, Mother May-belle Carter, the three Carter Sisters, the Tennessee Three and Carl Perkins) feel this way without harboring any mild treachery in their hearts, but that's the way it is. They all love Johnny Cash. And so do his fans.
A boy—a cripple, they say, on the verge of death—has been hitchhiking from Ohio to Nashville and then back up to Allentown to see Johnny Cash. He shows up and proves to be a 25-year-old migrant laborer. He had a motorcycle accident and broke a bunch of ribs. Prior to that, somebody shot him, accidentally, with a shotgun. He is all bandaged. Brought before Cash, he dissolves into fan mush. He has a goofy, hapless look and way about him, verifying that he is a born fuck-up of life itself. Some kid who never grew up to be a man, quavery-voiced before Johnny Cash, tears globbing in his eyes. This is the greatest moment of his life. A Polaroid snapshot. The smell of pink sticky fixative. He stands in a corner, fixing the memory with an assist from science.
Johnny's wife, June Carter—a lovely, bright-eyed mountain girl—says, "You wouldn't believe it. There's a steady stream of cars that come by our home, just steady. We're having big gates built for the front. My daughter Carlene woke up the other morning with this man peepin' right through her shutters, and they were walkin' all over. I went out to get somethin' in the freezer out in the washhouse and I looked up and there was a big Greyhound bus parked there and people all over, grabbin' things and takin' things, like rocks."
Johnny Cash sings: "Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" Backstage, National Guard soldiers come by to shake his hand, gray-haired security cops, dried-up housewives with steel-rimmed glasses and high, bleached-out voices. We follow his manager, Saul Holiff, into Cash's dressing room, where a man and his wife and their son in a wheelchair and two other sons and a small daughter are standing around. The man—small, leathery, all tendons, with a Western string tie on a figured shirt—introduces his possessions: "My wife, my son, my son, my little princess...."
Johnny Cash gives off a number of "Glad ta see yas" and there's a lot of scuffling around. Holiff whispers to me that the man has brought his wife here in the hope that this will somehow save his marriage. She is planning to leave him.
"Mike here is going up to the M. D. camp next week," the man says. "You know, Jerry Lewis."
Johnny Cash is standing erect, distantly connected to the drama in its enactment, some innate grace keeping him from being sucked in. But you wonder what his fantasies are. Could he really save this marriage? Everybody is stiff and uncomfortable. Holiff suggests a Polaroid. Johnny Cash with the family; Johnny Cash stiffly resting his hand on the visiting wife's waist, the wife stiffly joyous, waiting for some godly supercharge in the shriveled innerlands, with terror and shy hope in her hooded eyes; everybody standing about, speaking monosyllabically, smiling, all ghosts, all standing in for real people elsewhere in the misty joyous past.
"OK?" Holiff asks with his arms outstretched.
"Thanks very much," and out they go, goodbye, nice ta see ya, small sallow man gripping Holiff's hand tightly with gratitude; his wife, his son, his other son, his son in a wheelchair, his little princess.
Onstage, Johnny Cash sings: "He turned the water into wine; didn't my Lord, now. He turned the water into wine...."
The typical country-and-western fan nowadays is not precisely the poor hayseed he used to be, but he is a lineal descendant. The children of the Depression have grown up to grab a fair share of the nation's affluence. Allen Berke, who was sales manager at radio station WOKO in Albany, New York, when I researched this article, gives assurances that country-and-western fans are very good consumers, very loyal. "When we go out and sell country, we don't guarantee everybody," Berke says, "but we do guarantee responsiveness. And we discovered that basically, all stations have the same demographics. Albany, Oshkosh, Denver, Little Rock—the same type of people are tuning in country. This is basically what we come up with: 18-to-49-year-olds, no teeny-boppers, no old folks. Now, this is the buying public. People starting out, young marrieds, people willing to let us persuade them to buy your product, Mr. Client. Now, look at this Brand Rating Research Corporation survey of 24,000 people in 24 major markets. Country people, Mr. Client, of all categories, were highest in baking mixes, ketchup, hot dogs, mustard—naturally—margarine sticks, but not real butter, laundry detergent, cough syrup, hair coloring, hair spray, nonfilter cigarettes—they are your Lucky and Camel smokers—chewing tobacco, home permanents and indigestion aids. Also, they put 20,000 miles or more on their cars each year, led in all auto accessories like plastic seat covers, low-priced and used cars purchased, one or more trucks owned, camping trips six days or more, motorboats purchased and recently purchased color-TV sets."
"Modern country music," according to Dick Ellwood, then WOKO's program director, "is quality music." Ellwood looks down on the old-time country sound, which he says was "bad English, wailing, nasal, plodding, two-beat, fiddle weaving in and out. They sang a flat note with no character to it." Ellwood won't program the oldies without labeling them "classics." The only Hank Williams he'll play is Williams with orchestral strings behind him.
The change in country music is due in large part to the new interest in it. It's being accepted by more and more people and, as with any commercial product, is being altered to suit their tastes. Country music today is big business, one that brings in $100,000,000 a year and has made Nashville, which calls itself Music City, U. S. A., second only to New York as a recording center. Unlike its shiftless cousin, folk music, which with minor exceptions goes its own proud and penurious way, country has always known how to take in pop feedback. In the Forties, it needed great amounts of new material to feed the expanding market, and this is what is beginning to happen once again. The deejays all see a trend developing, with people like Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell and John Hartford the prime beneficiaries, as well as others such as Buck Owens, who, despite his pledge to record only country music, has a distinctly rock sound behind him. What's more, rock groups are now getting into country (listen to the Byrds' The Christian Life or the Rolling Stones' Honky-Tonk Woman or The Band having fun with a Johnny Cash oldie, The Long Black Veil).
The most important head turn to country, however, was Bob Dylan's. Beginning with Blonde on Blonde, cut in Nashville with Nashville studio musicians, through John Wesley Harding to Nashville Skyline, the country intent has been growing and evolving. But the Geist in it is very far from good old country-boy stuff. There is no song in country to compare with Dylan's I Want You for naked sexual assertion, or even his less direct but much more simple "country" treatments of the same subject, Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You and I'll Be Your Baby Tonight.
In sum, what this means is that, increasingly, the new country music is coming out of emotional material far removed from the good old bedrock Southern Baptist rural psyche.
To understand this change is to understand the slowly altering face of inner America: in some ways the willing subject of a not-so-handsome nose job, in other ways still very much what it was when the music first came down from the mountains with its charming Scotch-Irish-English accent and spoke simply to the people of those things they knew all about already—a life full of hard times, notorious disasters, reputed studs of the railroad, coal-mining and dirt-farming worlds, losers all, and cheating women. Especially the last: cheating, inscrutable, fascinating, tormenting, inexplicable women.
"A country boy tends to be happier when it's just men around," muses Carl Perkins. "Women have their quiltin' parties, they definitely don't fool with the coon hunt. They stay at home." Men are raised one way, women another. "When a woman gets the blues, she hangs her little head and cries. But when a man gets the blues, he grabs a train and flies."
Good women are to be respected. Then there's the other kind, the honky-tonk gal. The recurrent fear of the country man is that the good woman he has married and gotten to cook and keep house and raise a family for him will harbor within her secret liquid gusts of honky-tonk spirit. "To an old farmer in the hills or the flatlands where I was raised," Perkins recalls, "about all he's got is his woman. When love goes wrong, there's nothing that can knock the props out from under him more than to take his woman."
In the musical tradition that has developed out of this cultural circumstance, in which the saintly ideal (mother) proves over and over to be only too human (wife), there are certain distinct categories of response:
"I see you with a new man and it hurts me, but I can't turn my head away I'm so fascinated by my pain." Or, "You've left me once again and I feel terrible about it and I hate it, but I'm going to put up with it just this one more time, hear?" Or, "I'm a good ole boy and can't get mad at you no matter how much you step on my heart but by gosh look out this time here I come here I come here I come—with my .45 to blow your brains out."
In country music, variations on these traumatic apostrophes recur regularly, suggesting something about how an entire culture, fearful of sex and pleasure and certain kinds of freedom, failed to come to terms with the complexities of male and female and left people the choice of one of two postures—adulterous furtive lovers or tongue-tied strangers in the parlor.
To the country man, woman is incomprehensible and therefore uncontrollable. So, for that matter, is everything else in this world. Life is an endless torment, for a man sees that no matter how hard he tries, no matter how good an old boy he is, crops fail, floods destroy everything he works for, friends and loved ones die. They die on the road in auto accidents, their planes crash, they fall asleep with lit cigarettes. Over everything hangs the awful inescapable prospect of death, the possibility of salvation, the danger of unending hell-fire.
All of this being the case, it's not surprising that the country singer turns with some frequency to the consolations of religion for his material. In a life that fosters repression of feeling, in which the typical dance is all up and down with a stiff body, all the juicy movement done with the legs and none with the pelvis, in which smoking is bad, drinking is bad, swearing in front of the womenfolks is bad, honky-tonkin' is bad and even marital sex is at best one of the necessary but basically evil activities of this world, in which a man has no control over his destiny and constantly gives way to feelings of helplessness, there is nevertheless allowed to flower a lyrical love of God.
Listen to Johnny Cash on Supper-time:
"Some of the fondest memories of my childhood are woven around suppertime ... when Mother used to call ... 'Come on home now, son. It's suppertime.'... But you know, time has woven for me the realization ... that someday we'll be called together around the great supper table up there ... with Our Lord. I can almost hear the call now ... 'Come home, son. It's suppertime. Come on home.' "
Cash's voice, saying this, is soft and spiritual. It is boyish and tremulous, capturing the unique and tender faith that still exists throughout much of this land.
The song is a lyrical fantasy of a forgiving father's love speaking out from across a chasm of generations, both males tied to a vision of female goodness that finds its ideal in a mythic virginity. Undefiled mother, eternal father, eternal son—all holy ghosts. The family (the life that was) and heaven (the life that is to be) are one and the same, tenanted by the same splendid couple: a gentle, infinitely patient woman and a kindly, hard-working man, who rested on the seventh day and who knows how to punish an errant child for his transgressions. At the heavenly supper table, finally, the good old boy can end his tormenting quest, "Is this what you want from me, is this it, is this what you want me to be?"
"Come home, son. It's suppertime. Come on home."
This vision defeats time, defeats death, makes the final mystery comfortably known to the true believer—no surprises left in that final glorious flight. And this vision, most importantly, re-creates the blessed memory of childhood with the pious impurity of memory, which picks and chooses, which knows that in rosy childhood only are all the golden late afternoons of comfort and protection.
In childhood is the defeat of loneliness. In childhood are intimations of immortal purity and goodness.
Johnny Cash talks:
I was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, where my daddy was a farmer. In the Depression, in 1933, he lost his land, so he was sharecroppin' for his brother, who owned a lot of land in that county. Then Dyess Colony came along, that was part of Roosevelt's rehabilitation and it was a blessing. My daddy was offered this land up there in this co-op farming project. They sent him a letter that he had been specially selected as one of 500 families in Arkansas to be given 20 acres, a house and a barn, a chicken house, a smokehouse, so we could smoke and cure our own meat, a mule and a cow. And a Government loan of $20 a month through the winter. So we moved into Dyess in the winter of '35 and I lived there until the year I joined the Air Force, when I was 18, in 1950.
I was five or six when I started picking cotton. It's drudgery, you know, all day long. You straddle a row of cotton, pick it, then you go in and weigh it. You got paid per pound. Three cents a pound when I was a kid. In the harvest season, whenever we picked a bale of cotton, no matter what day it was, except Sunday, we'd take it to the cotton gin on a wagon pulled by mules. The only immediate (continued on page 209)Good Ole Boy(continued from page 148) money from the cotton was when you sold the seed. You'd get maybe $25 or $30 per bale. We didn't get any money from choppin' or plowin', but Daddy always paid us kids for pickin' cotton and there was always some backlog to spend it on, like clothes or shoes. And we always had a good Christmas. Plenty of fruit, candy, nuts and fireworks. We'd really bang it up with the fireworks. That was big for us. I mean, it was no Christmas without fireworks.
I went to church every Sunday, or practically every Sunday, because I wanted to. I enjoyed the hymns and I enjoyed singin' 'em. 'Course, it's an important part of poor Southern social life. The church life is. It used to be called a Sunday meetin', and that's about what it was. Back then, you didn't travel so much. You walked to town maybe twice or rode a wagon to the store on Saturday, when you'd stock up for the week.
My mother was a lovely, gentle, patient, wonderful woman.
I went back to visit last year. House number 266. When I saw in that kitchen, that floor, I called my sister and showed her the holes in the floor that the coals from the fire had burned back in the Thirties and early Forties, when my mother was still using a wood stove. And we'd cut wood and pile it up outside for the winter. In August, when we'd finish hoeing and plowing, there was a period of about three weeks between that and harvest time. That's called laying-by time. And we'd cut wood for the cookstove. And those holes in the floor that those coals of fire had burned from falling out of that wood stove onto the floor. I fell onto the stove when I was four. Burned my hand. I thought of that when I was there in that house. I remembered it so well.
Those cottonwood trees around that house. My daddy pulled them up from the riverbank and brought them up for the house for shade trees. I remember what I was doin' at the time. And every room, every window, every wall had a memory. Some almost bring tears.
There were only a few ways out of rural Southern poverty, and country music was the best. The others were going into the Service, maybe going Regular and winding up with a few stripes, or going North to get some good factory money. Johnny Cash went up to Pontiac the summer he graduated from Dyess High School (where he sang Joyce Kilmer's Trees at commencement), but he was just a skinny kid weighing 150 pounds and he was pulling down a punch press onto 1950 Pontiac hoods, making holes for screws to go in. And he was awful lonesome and losing weight as well, and the meals at the boardinghouse he lived in were nothing like home, so he quit in July and took a Greyhound back South and soon thereafter joined the Air Force. He wound up in Germany, doing—he says—some kind of Secret Service work, and the thing he remembers most about it is that he was lonely all the time.
One of the things he did was get himself a guitar and start singing and playing for the guys in the barracks. The other was more or less get engaged to a teenager named Vivian Liberto. He'd met her at a skating rink down in San Antonio, where he'd been stationed, and they corresponded themselves into a marriage just a few weeks after he got back from Germany and was out of the Air Force.
He was 22. He began trying to sell appliances for a living, but he was a lousy appliance salesman. Maybe he made $100 in all doing that. But his landlady, Miss Pat Isem, she was just wonderful, and if they didn't have the rent, why Miss Isem would just wait for it.
The best thing that happened, though, was that he met two good old boys who were working with his older brother Roy out at the Automobile Sales Company at 309 Union in Memphis. There was Luther Perkins. And there was Marshall Grant, who remembers the moment very well:
"I was working down this alley and as I looked up and 1 saw Roy and his brother Johnny walkin' down through there, it flashed all over me. You'd describe it as if you were to see God. It would send little chill bumps all over you. He was walkin' toward me and I felt someway, somehow, that there was somethin' we had in common, you know? And just immediately, we went over to talk to Luther Perkins, he was working on the other side, and we just become like blood brothers right on the spot before he ever left the building."
They used to get together two or three nights a week, playing spirituals, not professional musicians but just a bunch of boys who could pick up an instrument and play a few chords. Johnny sang Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb songs and he was so good at it, singing them just like Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb did, they were all impressed, they figured that was great.
Maybe four months later, they played a date at the Galloway United Methodist Church. Then a café. Then out at a ball park over in Arkansas. Passed the hat. Carl Perkins was playing the same date and he already had a record out. They were real shy with Carl, but then they got to talking and found out he was their kind of people, and they've been friends ever since.
The first time they cut a record for Sam Phillips on the old Sun label, they were scared stiff, so damn nervous, shaking all over. One of them—an old boy named "Red" Kernodle—was so scared he just dropped out. Quit, left his steel guitar sitting there and went back to work. He's still working. He's a mechanic over on Proper Avenue in Memphis.
The three other boys stayed there and recorded Cry, Cry, Cry, with Hey, Porter on the flip side, and it did well, got to number 14 on the country charts, and then, six months later, another of Johnny's songs, Folsom Prison Blues, which went to the top of the charts. The third record came 18 months later. It was called I Walk the Line and it was on the charts 44 weeks. Marshall and Luther still had their jobs. They waited until after I Walk the Line and then they felt they could safely quit.
J. R. Cash never sold another appliance in his life. That was 1955. And those early days were a lot of fun, what they call the good old days. After work, they'd pile into a '54 Plymouth and put the bass fiddle on top and off they'd go, playing dates in and around Memphis. Places with names like Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and Junior's Dew Drop Inn and Pearl's Howdy Club. They wore out the Plymouth, then a used Cadillac, then got themselves a new Chrysler and wore it out.
At first they took the wives and kids along, just one big happy family, then they started going out for maybe a week at a time and they left the families home. They'd play a date, then pick up and drive all night, racking up the miles, two of them sitting up front and the other curled up in back—a tough grind.
They tried to make the hours pass more pleasantly, but they weren't the sort to, say, fool around with Bad Women. In Cash's version of Frankie and Johnny, for instance, Johnny is a guitar-pickin' singer who gets tempted but in the end winds up faithful to Frankie. So they didn't go honky-tonkin'. Instead, they did mischievous things. They'd get into hotel rooms and jump on the beds, raise some hell, break some furniture and then get the innkeeper up there and say, "Innkeeper, we sorta broke some things up which we'd like to pay for and then if you'd be so kind as to get us another room." They stayed in the same room, the three of them, to save money.
They also had this signal cannon that they used to shoot off in hotel rooms. And for the really big times they'd make bombs, real, big ole bombs that they'd shoot off to blow up a tree, say, or some deserted country shack. They'd put four or five sticks of dynamite, five or six pounds of gunpowder into a can and wind twine around it. They'd carry it around until they found the ideal spot to blow it. Once, they were coming out of Denver on the way to Amarillo, Texas, and they had this bomb all ready to go, Marshall driving, four in the morning, going on those black ribbons that tie this nation together, quiet, lonely, and here John pops up and says, "Marshall, we just gotta explode the damn thing, I can't sleep back here, I'm so afraid it's gonna go off." So at daybreak, they set it off in the desert and it went off big, very big, like a couple of years' worth of Christmas fireworks, and they got a big kick out of it.
But then John's popularity began to grow and it wasn't possible to keep on that way. Country fans have a way of liking their singing stars to be pure and good; these fans are the salt of the earth, you know, but merciless, relentless. So the boys gave up horsing around. By 1956, they were appearing regularly on Louisiana Hayride, which is close to the top, and then, a year later, on Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, which is the top. By 1960, Johnny Cash was being billed not as a country star but as a balladeer, and if he wasn't number one, he was certainly one of the country superstars and the only one with a real audience outside country. In 1964, he was the hit of the Newport Folk Festival. He gave Bob Dylan his Martin guitar there, a gesture of respect and solidarity that must have confused all those who wondered what Cash was up to with that long-haired hippie weirdo—to say nothing of those who wondered what Dylan was doing hanging around with those Southern bigot shit kickers down in Nashville.
During this period, Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three started playing benefit dates at prisons. It was something John cared about. The first was Texas State Prison, Huntsville, some time in 1959. There was a downpour, an all-out storm, but they stayed out there, playing in the middle of a rodeo arena, with prisoners all around them, and none of the cons moved to get out of the rain. That's the reaction they got at all the prisons—at Cummins in Arkansas, at Hutchinson in Kansas, at Folsom and at San Quentin. Once, they played San Quentin and Merle Haggard, who is now a big country star, was a prisoner there, and somehow Johnny Cash spoke to him. some spirit passed from Cash to Haggard, who suddenly discovered that that was what he wanted to be.
Prisoners and Servicemen, Cash says, make the best audiences for him, because they're so responsive. But he gives more, too, he knows how to talk to them, one good old boy to another. Listen to the San Quentin album: "They say ole Johnny Cash works good under pressure. Put the screws on me, I'm gonna screw right out from under you is what I'm gonna do, you know that? Tired of all that [beep]." The prisoners cheer. "Aw ri. I tell you what. This show is bein' recorded ... and televised ... for England." The prisoners cheer. "And they tole me, they said, 'You gotta do this song, gotta do that song, you know? Stand like this, or act like this.' I just don't git it, man, you know? I'm here to do what you want me to and what I want to do." Here the prisoners cheer lustily for one of their own. self-described, a man who can't be pushed around in this life, a real man. "So what ya want to hear?" Following all this bad-boy bluster, he sings I Walk the Line, a good-boy song. The whole sequence is an illumination of some of the tensions that have afflicted him in his life and that have afflicted the men he sings to—men who, as Carl Perkins says, "tend to be happier when it's just the guys. They respect their women, but when a bunch of men get together, they swap jokes and leave the 'beep' in and they'd rather the womenfolks weren't around."
So Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three raced across the American landscape, using up cars and buses, cutting up in hotel rooms, and Vivian was at home with the four young children, all girls, and John wanted a son so badly he was really hurt about it. They had moved to Casita Springs, California, where John tried to break into films and TV to expand his base, but the film venture didn't turn out too well. It was something called Five Minutes to Live, with Pamela Mason, and John didn't like it at all. There were also some TV appearances. But the scene somehow wasn't working out right.
For one thing, the marriage was foundering. He doesn't like to talk about it, but the sound of it is in an album he put out early in this period. Now, There Was a Song!, full of classic weepers in the country genre. He does these misery songs very well, especially the old Hank Williams classic I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. Though he has a special interest in Jimmie Rodgers, there is more similarity between Cash's life and Hank Williams', including the very real possibility that his life might have ended the way Williams' did, in the back seat of a car somewhere on a road between truck stops and play dates, no pulse in him, no heartbeat in him, the victim of a premature "heart attack."
When Marshall Grant was asked what the worst thing their parents, hard-working country men and women all, might have feared for them, he said probably Bad Women first, but then the pills, which is the thing that really did happen to Johnny Cash. He was popping Dexedrine. He was overworking, going constantly, and his friends and relatives feel the reason for it all was the decaying marriage, although he himself says he doesn't know why and can't even recall what the pleasures were of being on that ride—seesaw, Margery Daw, going high, going low.
For a good picture of the ravages it can cause a man, look at the album covers of Mean As Hell! and Happiness Is You, two album titles drenched with hidden irony to those who know him well. Like Marshall Grant:
It was a way out, a cheap, fast way out, which John now admits. But, nevertheless, it was there and it was real, real, real bad. The tensions stemmed from his marriage. The marriage started fallin' apart long before he ever met June. She had nothin' whatsoever to do with his marriage fallin' apart. Besides bein' the most wonderful female besides my mother and my wife that I ever met, she came at a time that Johnny really needed somebody. Without June, he couldn't have done it. He wouldn't be alive today. I found him in the bus one time. I could feel no pulse, no breath, and through artificial respiration and everything, it brang him back to life. There had been other cases, but there was always something that kept him from dying.
I don't understand why he let it happen to him, because really he was only hurtin' himself.
When Johnny would get on these binges—and believe me, they were binges—he was a completely different person. The way you see him right now, you can completely turn him around. And then June and I was his biggest enemy, because we're the two that fought him so damn hard, so we're the ones that did all the damage. We'd find the pills and throw them away, we'd block as many of the sources of his getting them as we possibly could. So we were his number-one enemy, and it hurt so deep. Oh, it really hurt seeing this great man completely turned 180 degrees around and you saw the reverse side of I don't know what. 'Cause I felt that this man only had one side and it was good, but there was something that come out in him that wasn't John R. Cash. It was something else. And, by God, was he mean.
Then he'd go for weeks and not go to bed, just not at all. And he'd run up and down the halls in motels, slammin' doors and kickin' doors and kickin' doors down, anything to antagonize us, to let us know that he was up and raising hell, so to speak. Very seldom he got out and went anyplace and got into trouble. He didn't do that. He would stay right there in that motel and do whatever he was gonna do. And the only time he went to bed was when he had just completely passed out and then he went to sleep for about 24 hours and woke up a completely different human being.
Well, once we were playing some dates out in Texas and the last date come up in Dallas and he was supposed to have gone home. He left us on an early flight, something like six a.m., but that wasn't early for him, because he never did go to bed. I rode back on the plane with June and we got home the next morning and picked up the paper and there it was. Instead of going back to Los Angeles, he went to El Paso and caught a taxi across the border and bought a large quantity of pills. Of course, these people in Mexico have a little swingin' deal with the authorities and Johnny was a victim of that. I understand he was sittin' on the plane, all strapped down to go home, when they come aboard and took him off and he had something like 1100 pills on him.
If it was me doin' the things he did, there was no way I could have lived through it. But I believe there was something that made somebody go find him and bring him back, because God just wasn't ready for him to leave here yet. I still think he's here for a purpose that he still hasn't fulfilled.
Johnny collapsed under the weight of all that purity and goodness, all that love and adulation. Once, when he was in good condition. Marshall came up to him and said, "Why, John? When you're like this, like you are now, why do you have to go back?"
And John said, "Marshall, I can't stand to face my friends."Look at a recent album cover. San Quentin, say, or Folsom.
Here is a big man, a large presence, broad shoulders, a big gut, a shape and aura of filled proportions, what J. R. Cash was meant to be by the thrust in his genes. Now look at the earlier Mean As Hell! and Johnny Cash is flesh being consumed, flesh on a spit, cheeks gone, shoulders gone, a man eating himself alive but leaving his heart intact. A man slung between a large destiny and sweet memories, like being tied to bent saplings, torn in two. Unwilling to let himself be all he could be and have the power and the pleasures.
In a way, he tried to be free, but in the end, he proved to be what he has been saying all along he was—a prisoner.
And some of the good, decent people of God who were his biggest fans turned on him. "Soon as they found out he had anything in his pocket stronger 'n aspirin," says Carl Perkins. "The grass-roots, dyed-in-the-wool country people from that area, they are so hard."
Johnny Cash likes to call his lakeside home in Hendersonville, outside of Nashville, a three-room house, and I suppose technically it is, a pair of striking wood and glass roundhouses or carrousels, two stories high, connected by a train-length passageway of glass, Tennessee fieldstone and old, hand-hewn barn timbers stained a weathered gray-green that almost looks natural. Outside there is a waterfall and a swimming pool and a dock by the lake, where he and June fish. Across the street is a large new house he built for his parents.
The day I came by, he was dressed in black trousers, black shirt overhanging a noticeable paunch that is accentuated by a backward-leaning posture. He spoke softly and feelingly, considerably more relaxed than he had been during a recent tour, and this despite the fact that his mother was just recovering from a mild heart attack and that June, recently pregnant, had collapsed during the tour and had to be brought home for a rest.
As we talked, in various spots around the house, on the outdoor deck, in the kitchen that disappears into a row of closets, on the bedroom balcony looking out on Old Hickory Lake full of bass and crappie, the impression grew that I had been told the truth, that Johnny Cash hadn't changed at all in more than a decade of stardom, that he was now exactly what he was always meant to be, what he had been raised to be: a moral, godly, hard-working country man who retires to the domestic hearth at the end of his workday to enjoy life's pleasures in a godly, moral way.
A Columbia Records technician who remembers Cash from the hairy pill-trip times says that he is now the straightest man in Nashville. It's hard to see how anybody could be straighter. He derives his greatest satisfaction from domestic joys: the purchase of a tractor, the birth of a son, John Carter Cash, after all these years. "Lord," says June, "he's with him all the time." His son has taught him laughter, but his annual $3,000,000 income hasn't changed him at all. He is just as humble and genuine as any country bub could wish, and to illustrate this, on the stairs between his round glass-walled bedroom and his rustic-elegant living room—the house is worth an estimated $250,000—there is a display shelf containing a cluster of cotton on the stalk.
"That's some cotton from Dyess, Arkansas," he said offhandedly as we passed it, as though just any city superstar would be as likely to have erected some little shrine to childhood hard times—a roach or a rat in formaldehyde, say.
At my request, he enacted picking cotton, and he did it with no self-consciousness or hesitation. He bent over and began picking, his legs spread and his heavy trunk overhanging a cotton row, humped, fingers flying, cotton to sack, cotton to sack. "You take these fingers here in between the burrs and pull the cotton out. Just kind of twist it out, something you have to learn to do real fast. The burrs stick you in the fingers. If you pick cotton all day, your fingers are stuck all over with wounds from the burrs."
He came erect, his body suddenly huge with pride, rearing his thick-maned head back, his mouth sucked in, judging me and challenging me to come across the line and understand what was in his heart then, what was in his blood, and I think I did: His eyes were bright with the romance of his blessed childhood stigmata.
He is happiest talking about his childhood. There are some areas he refuses to get into at all—his first marriage, for example. But he will talk at great length and with great pleasure about Dyess and his youth, which in one way is odd, considering the dismalness of American rural poverty in the Depression years, considering how rejected the rural South feels and has felt, considering the tragedy that dogged the Cash family.
There were seven brothers and sisters. The oldest brother, Roy, lives in Memphis, where he is a service representative for Chrysler. Older sister Louise also lives in Memphis. She is married. Youngest sister Joanne lives in Hendersonville. Tommy records country-and-western music for Epic Records. Reba runs House of Cash, one of two Johnny Cash corporations, which does music publishing. The other brother, Jack, had a bad accident when he was 14 and Johnny was 11 or 12. They were very, very close.
It happened in late May, just before school was out. Soon they would be going into the fields to work the cotton. Jack was at school, working in the wood-shop for pay. They called it hiring out. Any time they worked for their neighbors or any of the big farmers in the area and got paid for it, they got to keep the money. And it was really something if they could get an extra job, make a couple of dollars. So Jack was helping build a fence at the Agricultural Building in town.
John was going fishing that morning out at the Tyronza River and he wanted Jack to go with him, but he wouldn't. He said, "No, I'm going to work." And John took his fishing pole and walked about halfway to town with him. Then Jack went on to town and John went on to the river.
He had begged Jack to go fishing. But Jack wouldn't. He had said, "No, I'll go make my dollar." So Jack went on to the school, to work in the woodshop, and he was working at a bench saw, pushing lumber through it, and something happened, somehow, and Jack got pulled up onto that saw.
To this day, John will not sing the songs that were sung at Jack's funeral. But he has vowed that ten percent of the songs he sings will be sacred ones, and a recent album, The Holy Land, took him to Jerusalem and the sacred sites of Christianity, and he says it was the high point of his life. Marshall Grant says he's sure Johnny Cash "collaborated some with Jesus on that album."
A fan has asked him, "Do you feel God calling you into any special kind of service for Him?" And he has answered, "I think He did that years ago, when He called me to sing."
Marshall's best guess is that Cash's mission is, more or less, to bring us all together, that in his super superinternational stardom, which he is sure will come, Cash will have a very big influence on us all. This is a very heady destiny, but I suspect Cash would not altogether reject it. He does feel himself to have certain powers. He can sometimes communicate with the late Johnny Horton. What, after all, was Cash doing if not having a very big influence on us all when the President of the United States—who once, long ago, called upon us to lower our voices and who once said his mission was to bring us all together—asked Johnny Cash to come to the White House and sing Okie from Muskogee and Welfare Cadilac, and Cash said, courteously, to be sure, that no, he wouldn't sing those songs, because, popular though they are, Okie pokes fun at hippies and radical youth in general and Welfare is about some folks buying themselves a new Cadillac on their welfare checks. The President said he didn't mean to be divisive at all, he just liked those songs. But Cash didn't sing them. Nixon is his man; he stands four-square behind the President, but it is not in him to be mean and uncharitable and thoughtless. This is perhaps a legacy of his Indian blood. He is a quarter Cherokee, from his father's mother, and he identifies with this blood far more than anybody else in the family does. We had been discussing the special feeling he has, a curious compassion for and identification with the downtrodden and the abused. He had been telling me about a monument he had visited in Germany that marked the site where German machine gunners had slaughtered about 500 Jews. "I betcha I been to that place 15 times." he said, his voice quivering with feeling, "just to sit and cry, sit and bawl. And I don't understand why I felt like I did, because I had never known anybody that was a Jew. You know? But I felt so bad about that. My Indian blood? I think it's noble blood. A lot of people that live in or near Indian reservations, they look down at the Indian as a drunk or dirty, smelly, and this is not the image of the Indian to me. This is not what an Indian is."
"The Jew, the Indian and the Negro," I said, "allowed their images to be built up."
"That just shows me that they're even better people," he said, with a surprising show of anger. He had been lounging against a sofa cushion. He sat up erect.
"Some people might think that makes it look like they're weaker people," he said with heat and passion, "but to me, it's that they're a better people, because when it's all tallied up, if there's a big tally book up there, a judge to stand before"—he raised his fist, closed tight, muscles running up his arm—"it's not going to be me that did this"—chopping down with the fist, overpowering whiff of mythic elements in it, Mars, or Cain in the fields—"not going to be me that did this to that guy. It's going to be that guy that did it to me."
He was charged with feeling, full to bursting. His face was radiant with the anger that, surprisingly, gave it much the look he has onstage, socking out the message. During this exchange, he had even stopped coughing. This cough of his is a terrible thing, it's bitter for a singer to have chronic throat trouble. He emits a dry, hacking cough at intervals and it won't clear up. There is something in there scraping him raw, some obstruction that needs to be brought up, possibly something—who knows?—that has to be said or sung before it can release its grip on him and he can stop peering into the faces of those he meets for the answer to the mystery that will never be explained to any man not prepared to rip his heart out and swallow it whole and be reborn.
He always wears black, like some penitent in some penitentiary or some holy man who has made himself a prisoner for us all, has taken it at the wrists and ankles for us all. In a society in which the ideal is the emulation of Jesus, power goes to those who least and those who most resemble Christ. Cash is one of the latter. His generosity, his compassion, his almost perfect humility. The message and the sermon in his songs are in his flesh. He is, in Bob Dylan's phrase, a "sad-eyed prophet" for a literal Christianity of fundamentalist belief and constant re-enactment, a belief that is slowly dying in this nation but not among old-time Johnny Cash fans. He has put himself under a sentence of death for them and they revere him for it.