Johnny Cash

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Johnny Cash Pencil Portrait
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The Epiphany, an ancient Christian feast day, is significant in a number of ways. In the East, where it originated, it celebrates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. It also celebrates Jesus’ birth and, as I well know, in the Spanish speaking world Epiphany is also known as Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day).

Yet for many other individuals, it can also refer to a sudden flash of understanding or insight. An epiphany is a sudden realisation or comprehension of the essence or meaning of something. The term is used in either a philosophical or literal sense to signify procuring the final piece of a puzzle in order to envisage the whole picture. This new information or experience, often insignificant when viewed in isolation, nevertheless illuminates a deeper or numinous foundational frame of reference.

Descending deeper and deeper into the Nickajack Cave, heavily under the influence of narcotics, and intent on losing himself, the ‘Man in Black’ sought to avoid rescue in order to meet his maker. Eventually, exhausted from his exertions, and at the end of his tether, he passed out on the floor. According to his subsequent testimony, he felt God’s presence in his heart and managed to negotiate his way out of the cave by following a faint light and slight breeze. For Johnny Cash, it was his own rebirth and one that would re-define the rest of his life.

It makes for great reading doesn’t it? Unfortunately, in Cash’s own parlance, this story amounts to little more than a ‘crock of shit,’ and that’s the whole problem facing any biographer of his life – separating fact from fiction.

This story has become part of Cash lore, yet as his biographer Robert Hilburn discovered, “Nickajack Cave was underwater in the fall of 1967”, as extensive weather records testify. One must also lay blame at the feet of his mother and second wife June, for permitting such ‘literary fabrication’ during the proofreading stage of his autobiography. They would obviously have known that they were not there to greet him with a basket of food and drink, as he emerged from the cave. Furthermore, the experience was not a cathartic one; his narcotic addiction continuing well into the spring of 1968, as backstage witnesses at the Folsom Prison concert will readily testify.

So why did he do it, and why did close relatives countenance such obfuscation? Well, Cash was, at heart, a storyteller. In that dramatic, Old Testament voice, he sang songs about prisons, trains, loneliness, hurt and truth, whilst making them sound as if he’d personally lived the experience. “Folsom Prison Blues,” “One Piece at a Time,” “The Beast in Me” — whether he composed them or not, he made you believe. “That was his chief strength,” says Robert Hilburn, “He was always best when he tried to tell his own story, or something he cared about.” The tale of course, had a point, for “the (Nickajack) story dramatized the feelings of helplessness and recovery.”

His passion was gardening. In order to indulge this interest, he was compelled to rise at six if he wanted to escape the eyes of tourist boats scouting the lake. Interviewed in 1971 by Beatles biographer Phillip Norman, he said; “I raise beans, peas, okra, cabbage, squash. I got an orchard with Jonathan and Bartlett pears, Winesip apples, and I’ll have Chinese chestnuts and paper-shell pecans.”

Part of the garden was the site of Roy Orbison’s house which had burned down, killing his two small sons in 1968. Cash promised his old friend, when he took over the property, that something good would at least come out of the ground.

“We own a mansion,” Cash readily admitted to Norman, “but that’s home; we’re dug into it. I got some woods over there, maybe 80 acres of woods. In the middle there’s just a two-room shack. I’ll go over there and sit around – read a lot. I read novels but I also read the Bible and study it, you know? And the more I learn, the more excited I get. Some of those stories are as wild as any HG Wells could drum up. And that Jesus! He really cuts me up! I worship him, but he tickles me to death.”

I first became aware of Cash when I was ten years of age, and whilst I was never a slavish devotee of country music, there was something about him that struck a chord with me. Most of all, I loved his voice, an unmistakable bass-baritone that could swoop down into the very bowels of one’s soul. He was not a great musical technician, possessed of only a rudimentary knowledge of the guitar and piano, but he could accompany himself, creating a backdrop to an unforgettable sound, a flexible blend of country, rock ‘n’ roll and folk music, in addition to exploring themes that many other popular musicians of his generation were not prepared to touch.

As a result of his influence, I developed a penchant in my teens for dressing all in black; my grandmother remaining eternally convinced, whenever I visited, that I had come to bury her!!! Apart from denim and formal occasions, I never ‘lightened up’ until I was twenty.

[Programme for Johnny’s May ’66 UK tour. Only 3/6 to join his Appreciation Society – aaarh, those were the days!]

In one of his last television interviews, Larry King asked him, ‘Do you have any regrets in your life?’ Cash responded with an emphatic ‘no’ which barely seemed in sync with such a turbulent life. In his autobiography, the man himself had admitted that he was two people – a feckless gadabout and the upstanding family man; close friend Kris Kristofferson adding that he was a “walking contradiction, part truth and part fiction”. Nevertheless, whatever the public perception of him, Cash never served time in prison and certainly didn’t shoot a man in Reno “just to watch him die”.

A picture emerges of a flawed yet redeemable man, his son John Carter Cash acknowleging that whilst drugs darkened his father’s relationships, his addictions never made him physically violent. Recalling his childhood, he describes fights between his parents that were pretty intense, yet a father who was gentle, and less of a disciplinarian than one might have expected.

By 1983, Cash was back in the Betty Ford Clinic, recovering from a relapse into prescription pill addiction and herein lies my problem with a personality such as his. I’ve personally lost count of the number of instances where stars have undertaken personal appearance tours, often at the invitation of marginal religious organisations, in order to discuss their hedonistic ways and apparent self rehabilitation. Whilst one can accept the fact that audiences will show little interest in individuals who have fought hard to apply restraint throughout their personal lives, I nevertheless find myself questioning the motivation behind these very public confessionals. It’s not so much the initial ‘fall from grace’, for that is an experience that befalls nearly all of us, myself included, but rather the sheer repetition of behaviour at periodic intervals, almost as if there is little of any meaningful value to be learned from the initial experience.\

In his autobiography “Man in Black” (1975) Cash wrote:

‘I couldn’t know at age twelve, that every day is a brand new mountain, and though you might feel close to Heaven today, tomorrow you can be down to the lowest valley. I would need a lot of feeding, nourishing, teaching and growing, and a lot of years would pass before I’d realise it takes a lot of faith to walk daily with Jesus Christ. I never dreamed I’d ever go through a long period of running from him – never denial, but lots of running’.

An over zealous religious upbringing, with all its disciplinarian overtones, is a subject matter with which I remain uncomfortable. I was fortunate enough to have a father with whom I could both intellectualise my beliefs and desire to avoid affiliation with any organised religious group. Cash himself, appears to have recognised the constraints and divisive elements of such memberships when he wrote:

‘I’m sure denominations are important for bringing a body of believers together and giving them strength and motivation, but when this or that denomination begins to feel or, still worse, begins to teach that their particular interpretation of the Word opens the only door to heaven, then I feel that is dangerous. True, such preaching may convict some people and win them over. But how many more non-believers are alienated and will shy away from any further look at the plan of God? Telling others is part of our faith all right, but the way we live it speaks louder than we can say it. The gospel of Christ must always be an open door with a welcome sign for all’.

Recommended listening

Johnny Cash With His Hot And Blue Guitar Album (1957)

Capturing the brooding charisma of his early years, Cash’s debut album is a reminder of an eclectic artist, the solemnity to his baritone rendering his Sun label mates, Elvis and Jerry lee lewis, mere mischievous schoolboys.

He rocks convincingly on “Cry! Cry! Cry!” (his first hit single), grasps the essence of country blues on “I Heard That Lonesome Whistle” and gets into a folk groove on “Rock Island Line.” The spiritual fervour heard in “I Was There When It Happened” balances the rustic good spirits of “Country Boy.” Most memorably, Cash infuses “I Walk The Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” with the passion and foreboding that became his trademark for nearly half a century. The Tennessee Two, especially guitarist Luther Perkins, provide taut, propulsive instrumental backdrops. Hinting at the sufferings and triumphs Cash would experience in the decades ahead, the album provides the foundation of an indisputably legendary career.

Woefully absent from the digital domain for years, the album finally saw the laser light courtesy of Varese Vintage, a superb reissue of the original twelve tracks in correct sequencing, with five bonus cuts, newly penned liner notes from Bill Dahl, and the album’s original cover art.

Cash’s baritone, backed by the Luther Perkins’ tick-tack guitar and Marshall Grant’s upright acoustic bass, is equally at home fuelling rhythmic train songs, such as Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” and the traditional “The Wreck of the Old ’97,” as going down-tempo for prison laments such as Hank Williams’ “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle Blow)” and Jimmie Skinner’s “Doin’ My Time”.

Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis might have provided the archetypal rock ‘n’ roll sound of Sun Records, yet Sam Phillips deployed Cash’s decidedly different catalog for the label’s first long-player, a less surprising decision with hindsight when re-appraising this rock solid debut.

Johnny Cash Ring Of Fire (The Best Of Johnny Cash) (1963)

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison (1968)

Johnny Cash At San Quentin (1969)

Originally a single album, ‘At San Quentin’ is now a deluxe three-disc, Legacy Edition Package; two CDs containing 31 selections, 13 them previously unissued, plus a DVD called Johnny Cash In San Quentin, a 1969 documentary made by England’s Granada TV for British television. It is, by turns, exhilarating and harrowing; among the tunes is a full rendition of ‘‘A Boy Named Sue,’‘ the rollicking, rowdy smash that in 1969 topped the C & W singles charts for five weeks, while also reaching number two on the Pop side.

Johnny Cash American Recordings Album (1994)

Just as many of today’s rock dinosaurs can effortlessly fill huge seater auditoriums without attracting even their most loyal following to newly minted product, Johnny Cash was in the same unenviable position by the mid 90’s, a living legend, beloved by fans of classic country music, yet unable to interest anyone in his most recent work. In need of a new direction, he signed to Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label, opting to record with a producer best known for his work with edgy rockers and hip-hop acts. With the advent of MTV’s ‘Unplugged’ series, Rubin saw the wisdom of simply rigging recording equipment in Cash’s Tennessee cabin and capturing him on tape singing a set of songs accompanied only by his acoustic guitar.

The old maxim ‘less is more’ worked well, every nuance of Cash’s world weary baritone to the fore amidst the stripped back accompaniment.

The Man in Black operates at times in unfamiliar territory; it’s hard to imagine he would have recorded tunes by Glenn Danzig or Tom Waits without encouragement, yet he stamps his DNA all over every track whilst bringing some excellent new songs to the table, including the Vietnam veteran’s memoir “Drive On,” the powerful testimony of faith “Redemption,” and a sly but moving recollection of his wild younger days, “Like a Soldier.”

If the lauditories were excessive, the hyperbole was merely a guilt ridden reaction to the star’s wilderness years, for ‘American recordings’ merely confirmed that Cash was still making compelling music, something he had never stopped doing even if no one had bothered to listen.

Recommended viewing

Johnny Cash In San Quentin (Granada TV) 1969

Original 1969 documentary produced by Granada TV in the U.K. Includes footage of the concert that became the 1969 best-selling LP, and features a full performance of the number 1 hit “A Boy Named Sue.” Also contains one-on-one interviews with several of the prison guards and inmates, talking about their time and experience behind bars. Old friend Carl Perkins is there on rockabilly guitar whilst Johnny resists the temptation to spark a full scale riot. A classic piece of Cinéma vérité.

Recommended reading

I walked the line – My life with Johnny (Vivian Cash with Ann Sharpsteen).

I was interested in reading Vivian’s memoir, published by Simon and Schuster posthumously, following her death from lung cancer in May 2005.

As portrayed in the 2005 movie ‘Walk the Line’, Vivian was a perpetually pregnant harridan holding Johnny back, while effervescent June, heiress to the Carter Family musical mystique, shared his ambitions and knew how to maximize his talents. Vivian, who stood by Johnny when he was poor and hopeless, addicted and helpless, paints the picture, without using too heavy a brush, that Johnny’s new Nashville/Hollywood cronies were all too complicit in closing ranks, boosting the new young starlet in preference to the old, worn-out housewife as a suitable trophy for the iconic Man in Black.

Vivian attributed much of the problems in her marriage to Cash’s drug intake and he half hearted attempts to ‘keep her man’ when June appeared on the scene.

Essentially comprised of letters he wrote to her, Vivian’s story, some of it already public knowledge, is disappointingly brief and I remain sceptical of certain aspects to it.

On page 313, she writes:

In 1975, Johnny published his autobiography,‘Man in Black’, and sent me a copy with a note: “To Vivian, I hope this will make people know and understand what a good wife and mother you always were”. I put it away on a shelf and never read it. This of course, is a possibility, but behaviour hardly in keeping with a woman who carried a torch for her man throughout the remainder of her life and very nearly ruined her second marriage as a result of those feelings. Nearly, thirty years later when June Carter was close to death, and sensitive to her feelings, Vivian’s close friend Carol Daly, fely duty bound to phone Radio KHAY in Nasville to clarify the natural heritage of the singer Rosanne Cash. Relaying her feelings to Vivian, she reportedly couldn’t help herself – ‘I told them June is not Rosanne’s mother, and that you live right here in Ventura’.

Cash reportedly gave his blessing to his first wife when she floated the idea of an autobiography; a response out of step with his Larry King talk show appearance in which he expressed no regrets in his life. meeting. More importantly, there were no witnesses to corroborate the conversation.

There are similar verification problems over June Carter’s cold declaration, “Vivian, he will be mine”, yet in all likelihood the conversation took place for after all, her experience is not new in the history of the world. In fact, it is the very stuff of fable. A man with a long-suffering wife who shares his misfortunes finally rises from obscurity, achieves fame and begins to enjoy being the center of attention. Sycophants abound, and a woman within that magic world, unencumbered by reminders of the old life, shines out as the new, worthy partner.

Johnny Cash - The Life (Robert Hilburn) 2013

There’s an initial quality feel to Hilburn’s biography – the cover artwork, project scope, an enduring thirty six year professional relationship, (Cash being initially interviewed by his future biographer in 1967), and star luminary citations.

All this bodes well, and Hilburn is understandably quick to catalogue the raft of positive reviews for his extensive work on his website:


The ultimate product based website for “all things Johnny”.