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My mother had an old book called Heavenly Highway Hymns. She used to sit and play those songs in it – old church songs, country gospel songs, dozens of them – all the way through, over and over in her lifetime. My mother loved that book. It’s mine now, and it’s kind of dog eared and ragged, a little bit like I am, and I love that book too. So when I started picking out songs for an album of my favorite church and gospel songs, I went to my mothers hymn book, and I found the ones I wanted to record.

The songs in that old book mean more to me than I can tell you, so I’ll just sing em, me and my guitar, simple, no adornment, knowing that God loves music and that music bring hope for a better tomorrow. You asked me to pick my favorite album I’ve ever made and this is it. My Mother’s Hymn Book. On that album I nailed it. That was me. Me and the guitar, and that’s all there was in it and all there was it. I’m so glad that I got it done.    Johnny Cash  

Second Part

It’s early morning in Hendersonville , TN , July 2003 – very early. In the years since bad health forced him to give up touring, Johnny Cash followed a new timetable in which late nights no longer play a part. “I go to bed with the chickens and beat em getting up. He smiles as they wheel him through the front door and into the porch. He’s dressed all in black – black button-up shirt, black trousers, smart back shoes and socks, the odd black strand still visible in his wispy white hair. The fierce southern summer, an enormous, hot wet face cloth that flops over Tennessee from midday on, is still some hours away, and the birds are doing their darnedest to avail themselves of the hospitality of there pretty little bird-feeders that June hug everywhere among trees. I love to hear the birds sing in the mornings “says Johnny” It feels like they’re singing to me.

When I ask him if there’s anything he’d  like to talk about today, he answers without hesitation, I want to talk about My Mother’s Song Book It’s an album he’s fiercely proud of – his favorite he says of anything he’s done. These are songs that his mother Carrie taught him when he was small boy living in their small cabin on a new deal farm in Dyess Arkansas, singing and playing them to him on her Sears Roebuck catalogue guitar. They’re powerful songs, he says, my magic to take me through the dark places. They are ld songs he would sing to the terrors at bay as a frightened five-year-old walking home in the darkness, through the flat, black land, after working in the cotton fields. Or when his father had one of his violet rages. Or when, as a broken hearted 12 year old, he watched the coffin holding his beloved brother Jack lowered into the ground.

He sang songs associated with good ties too – My mother had always taught me that music was a joyful thing – and the songs ultimately gave him his career. If Carrie had not taught him these songs hymn book songs, encouraged him to sing and told him that his talent was a gift from God and he should not toss it away, he would not be here today, on the front porch of his big beautiful house where guitars, country music trophies and rock music awards jostle for space with antiques, silver,  paintings, photographs, grand old furniture and book.

Johnny Cash’s remarkable career has been full of these paradoxes and contradictions the country icon who rediscovered the soul of his music through working with a heavy metal and rap producer, the symbol of stoicism who spent periods of his life helplessly dependent on drugs; a man who’ll sing a profound spiritual and fellow it with a peace of cowpony; the outspoken supporter of the downtrodden and dispossessed who has a framed, signed photograph of Ronald Reagan on the wall, etc, etc, etc. – Johnny could tell you a whole lot more himself if he had the mind to. He always had a far better perspective on what he’s done, and more importantly, who he is, than anyone else.

 

A short way off from here, in what Johnny calls his compound there’s a cabin he says reminds him of the one where he grew up. Here, more than six decades after his mother first sang and played him these songs, Johnny sang and played them back to her. The recording session was as intimate and personal as it sounds. Apart from Cash’s longtime friend and engineer David Ferguson, who at quietly behind the board, it was simply Johnny and his guitar.

He called and said, Fergie, come on up here, I want to record some gospel music, recalls Ferguson . So I went up there to the cabin. He had this old hymn book with him that told me had belonged to his mother, and he just sat down with guitar and started to go through the book, picking out a song that he wanted to sing and singing it. Then we did another one and another one, one right after another. He knew all those songs by heart; he’s sung them in church all his life. It was good that on that one Sunday we cut 20 or 25 songs. Fifteen of them were keepers for this record.

June would drop by the cabin once in a while, like she always did, just to check on john’s health and his appetite, see if he needed anything, the slip quietly away and leave him alone. She finally heard the finished album last winter. We were in our house in Jamaica , Cinnamon Hill, and we were lying on the couch and I played it for her. There a long pause. Johnny is starring off at something I can’t see; none of us can. At the end of it she said, that’s wonderful, John, that’s really wonderful. That about all she said. It’s all she had to say, it was enough.

Carrie Cash never got to hear her son’s favorite record; his mother passed on in 1991. In May 2003, less than two months before this interview, June passed also. In September 2003, less than two months later, Johnny Cash joined them. If the circle had ever been broken, it was unbroken now.

But out there on the front porch in July, before the heat and humidity drove him back indoors, he was talking about making new records and how excited he was about this one. He was talking too about heaven. I’d asked him how he pictured it to be and he shrugged. I don’t have any idea. I’d say it’s big – a lot of people think they’re going there, so it had better be big, he chuckled. And there’s got to be music there, a lot of singing. God likes music. Whatever it was like, you could te he wouldn’t have minded a one-way ticket, even if he’d been working hard on his music; the wound of June’s passing was extremely deep. God had other plans for me, he said, I guess there’s something more he’s got for me to do, and who am I to argue?

He sat there quietly for a while, half-blinded eyes gazing at nothing. Until I asked him a question was he angry with God for leaving him here to do it alone? He gripped the arms of his wheelchair and sat up straight, dark eyes blazing. Never, Never he growled – and if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a Johnny Cash growl, You’ll know not to take it lightly. No I don’t get angry with God. Not at anything. As the nurse came to wheel him inside, he turned and smiled. My arms. He said  My arms at to short to box God. 

 

 

Revised: September 03, 2007

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