LA. Times Johnny Cash Article's
home and at peace
Cash keeps the albums coming, though his days of touring are just a
memory. It seems illness won't silence the Man in Black.
Maces Springs, Va. -- John R. Cash
was born Feb. 26, 1932, which means a recent Saturday was somewhere around
his 25,800th day on Earth. That he spent most of that day in a modest,
two-story wood-frame house in a quiet Virginia valley says a lot about the
country music pillar and the historic locale.
Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, own glamorous estates in Nashville
and Jamaica, but they find special comfort in the beauty and tradition of
this house and this unspoiled valley, both of them the home to country
music's hugely influential Carter Family.
"It comes down to solitude and peace of mind," Cash says,
sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. "That's something we
cherish now. The phone rarely rings up here.
"We bought this place in the
early '80s. June grew up here, and it has always been her dream to come
back here. We make it a couple of times a year. I wish we could make it
It was the inspired mountain music of the Carter Family -- A.P., Sara and
Maybelle -- that helped lay the foundation for modern country and
bluegrass music in the 1920s. As a boy in Dyess, Ark., Cash heard such
Carter Family tunes as "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "Wabash
Cannonball" on the radio, and he dreamed of being a singer himself.
Cash has lived that dream for nearly half a century. He's done more than
Williams to raise the artistic level of country music, thanks to his
blue-collar tales of human desire and redemption. Hailed as an
influence by everyone from Bob Dylan
to Bono, he has been voted into the country music, rock 'n' roll and
songwriter halls of fame.
Over the years, the Man in Black, as he is known for his trademark garb,
has spent close to 8,000 of his days on tour.
But those days are long behind him. The years have been hard on Cash, a
hellion in his younger days who battled a fierce amphetamine addiction.
Many assumed Cash's music career was over six years ago when doctors told
him that he had a rare, life-threatening neurological disorder, but the
singer didn't give up. He has recorded three more albums, two of which won
Grammys. The third will be released Nov. 5.
Even after learning in 2000 that the diagnosis was false, he has continued
to suffer from failing health. Cash has been hospitalized several times
for pneumonia, once spending nearly two weeks in a coma. Glaucoma robs him
of much of his eyesight, causing a sometimes unsteady gait. Asthma leaves
him short of breath, requiring him to take rests during recording
But his mind remains sharp, and his love of music is still intense.
"Music is part of my life every day," says Cash, who is warm and
surprisingly shy for someone who has been in the spotlight for so long.
"It's hanging around every morning; sometimes it is with me at night.
June says I was singing a song all last night in my sleep. She had to
Cash's voice breaks. "It's the asthma," he says as he reaches
for a glass of water and tries to catch his breath.
In the evening, the Cashes head down the road for a guest appearance at a
weekly barn dance sponsored by descendants of the Carter Family. Admission
at the informal 1,000-capacity amphitheater is just $4 for adults, and the
seating is first-come, first-served. The building has a homespun touch,
with fans sitting on old school bus seats, church pews and movie theater
It's the only place Cash performs these days.
Carter, June's cousin, doesn't advertise his appearances because she
doesn't want to put pressure on him if he doesn't feel up to performing.
But word has spread through the county that Cash is appearing, and there's
an overflow crowd.
It's an older audience, and most have followed Cash's music for years. The
room explodes with cheers when he takes the stage, and for a moment the
magic is back. Joined by a three-piece band, Cash opens with "Folsom
Prison Blues," and his rich, deep voice is as strong as the original
hear the train a-comin'
And I ain't seen the sunshine Since I don't know when.
I'm stuck in Folsom prison And time keeps dragging on ...
isn't a great singer technically, but he's a superb communicator whose
almost conversational vocal style captures life's everyday search for
comfort and salvation with uncommon warmth and conviction. Even in the
most joyous tunes, however, his instrumental sound tends to be stark, as
if reminding us of life's accompanying hardships.
There are flamboyant touches in his recordings (the mariachi-like horn
lines in "Ring of Fire"), but the trademark sound is a "chicka-boom-chicka"
guitar approach (pioneered by the late Luther Perkins) that is as steady
and self-affirming an amplified heartbeat. His music is drawn equally from
blues, gospel, traditional country and folk -- woven together, in such
songs as "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line,"
into a rich tapestry of Americana.
Cash also navigates nicely through Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday
Morning Coming Down," but the shortness of breath shows in places on
"Supper-Time," an obscure country song he recorded in 1958.
Most of the fans are too excited to notice when he misses a word here and
there, but June, looking for any sign of difficulty, sees what's happening
and takes the stage at the end of the number, giving her husband a rest.
After a few minutes, he's back by her side, joining her in a duet, and the
voice has regained its power. The crowd roars again.
There are no address markers identifying Cash's house, so what you have to
do is just turn into one of the long driveways that leads from the old
two-lane road, knowing that if the house doesn't belong to Cash it will
surely be a relative's. Everyone in the area about 15 miles from the
Tennessee border seems to be a Carter cousin of some sort.
The Cashes' house is on a slope at the base of Clinch Mountain, which
means you can't see the faces on the porch from the driveway below. But
the deep, familiar voice tells you immediately that you've found the right
Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.
Well, he really only says, "Hello"; your mind fills in the rest
of the line that Cash used thousands of times to open his concerts and his
national TV show.
The greeting was as much Cash's trademark as his solid shock of black hair
and his black shirt and pants the cotton farmer's son wore as a symbol of
support for the downtrodden and oppressed. But his hair is now white, and
he's relaxing in a khaki shirt-jacket and gray slacks.
For anyone who remembers his rugged good looks and confident aura, it
takes a moment to adjust to the vulnerability that age has brought. But
Cash makes it easy to get past appearances.
A deeply religious man, he's too
aware of his many blessings to complain about any physical ailments.
Besides, in this idyllic valley whose Shell station is the only sign of
commercial intrusion, it's hard to be downcast about anything.
Cash loves the purity of the mountain music handed down by the Carter
Family, and he feels in touch with that tradition in Maces Springs. He
returns here for cleansing the way some people might turn to the hot
desert air or mineral baths.
After a breakfast of ham, biscuits, scrambled eggs and three types of
homemade jelly prepared by the couple's two housekeepers, Cash is tired
and lies down for a morning nap.
June, energetic at 73, uses the time
to show off the valley. Behind the wheel of the couple's Lincoln sedan,
she points out the places where members of the Carter Family went to
school or fished. She even takes me to the local cemetery to see the
graves of A.P. and Sara Carter, the husband and wife who formed the trio
with June's mother, Maybelle. The wording on their tombstones includes the
title of their most famous song, "Keep on the Sunny Side."
As June, who sang with her mom and
sisters in a version of the Carter Family for years and who is a
Grammy-winning recording artist now working on a new collection, heads
back to the house, she marvels at how the area has retained its character.
"I loved this place, but I also
felt there was more outside of these mountains and I was going to see
it," she says. "I went to New York to study acting, but I
eventually went back to music. I remember first hearing Johnny Cash on the
radio, and he sounded so lonesome. It reminded me of something deep inside
of me. It was like there was a piece missing in both of us, and God put us
together and made us whole."
By the time June gets back to the house, Cash is refreshed and wants to
play a tape with some rough vocals of the black gospel songs he is
thinking about including on his next album. When the tape ends, Cash picks
up an acoustic guitar and starts singing some more songs in a similar
style, and his voice is straight and true.
"As long as I can make records, I'm fine," he says, setting
down the guitar. "After all the years, I don't really miss the road.
You know what a big fun day for me is now? It's when June gets up and
we're both feeling good and we want to go shopping. We'll go to Wal-Mart
and I'll get one of those electric carts
and just race through the aisles. Imagine that being the highlight
of your day."
Still, isn't he looking forward to going on stage in a few hours?
He looks up and smiles, "You bet." Fans
lend him a hand
At the barn dance that night, the
Cashes take a seat in the audience after their set to watch the other
musicians. Fans surround them, eager to shake their hands or get an
autograph. After one song they retreat backstage for a few more minutes
before leaving the building.
In the '60s Cash was one of the most
charismatic performers in pop music -- prowling the stage with the nervous
energy of a caged animal. He looked so tough and unapproachable that fans
used to step out of his way as he moved about backstage. After all, he did
sing in "Folsom Prison Blues" about shooting a man in Reno
"just to watch him die."
As he heads down the amphitheater steps on this night, however, several
admirers step forward, helping steady him.
By the time I join them at their house a few minutes later, June is
wearing her robe and eating some corn bread and milk. John is in a chair
opposite her, looking tired. He's got cookies and milk on a tray in front
He's not happy with his performance,
and it brings out some of the vulnerability that he hadn't shown earlier
in the day, when he spoke about the gospel album as if it were a foregone
conclusion he would make it.
Now he admits he'd worried that his upcoming album might be his last. He
wasn't pleased with some of his vocals on it, and he wondered if his
producer Rick Rubin was losing patience working with him. The last two
albums may have won Grammys, but they didn't sell much -- a tiny fraction
of Rubin's albums with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and other rock groups.
had just finished my last vocal for the record and I shook hands with Rick
and I said, 'It's been fun.' I think it was my way of saying I understood
if he wanted to call it quits.
"But he immediately asked what I wanted to do next. I mentioned the
black gospel album, and then I mentioned an album of songs that would show
my musical roots, and Rick said, 'Let's do them both.' I was dumbfounded.
It was just what I wanted to hear. I had thought I might finally be at the
point where I would only be singing for myself."
Taking a bet, and winning
It's a sad image, but Cash's story again is his way of extolling his
blessings. After all, he still gets to make records.
Earlier in the day, Cash had told another story, one that perhaps best
summarizes his feelings about all that has happened to him.
in 1970, Cash took Michael Nesmith, of the Monkees, on a tour of his
lavish new house on Old Hickory Lake outside Nashville.
"We looked at the house and Michael said, 'I'm glad for you. Shame
you can't keep it.' I asked what he was talking about and he said, 'We
can't keep things like that in this business. My bet is you'll lose this
place and this woman because the business is awfully rough and you're as
vulnerable as anybody else.' "
"I knew what Michael was saying, but I told him I'd take that bet,
and you know what? I won."
Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic,
he was suffering from a rare, life-threatening neurological disorder. And
it now appears his doctors agree.
NEW YORK--You can call it an act of faith or simply denial, but Johnny
Cash refused to accept the diagnosis in 1997
"Shy . . .
Dragger's . . . syndrome," Cash says disdainfully, drawing out the
words that have hung over him like a death sentence for two years and
caused even close friends to wonder if the country music giant would ever
make another album.
"The first time I
heard those words was when I went into the hospital deathly ill with
pneumonia in 1997," says the 68-year-old singer during an interview
while here on business with his wife, June Carter Cash, and their son,
John Carter Cash.
"June told the
doctors right away that I'd never accept a nasty-sounding disease like
that. She said I'd fight it and win, and she started praying right there.
We both did. And now, I've not only finished that new album, I'm ready to
start on the next one."
Cash, a private and
deeply religious man, said doctors told him last November that he had been
misdiagnosed and didn't have the disease. It didn't occur to him to
announce it publicly because he had never accepted the diagnosis.
That doesn't mean that
the last three years have been physically easy for Cash, a member of both
the country music and the rock halls of fame.
singer, whose more than 100 country hits include "Folsom Prison
Blues" and "Ring of Fire," has been hospitalized several
times for pneumonia, once spending nearly two weeks in a coma. He also
feels frequent pain from a broken jawbone and subsequent infection he
suffered years ago. Its accompanying nerve damage causes swelling in his
face. Cash also has a diabetes-related ailment that requires monitoring.
Still, he found the
energy over the last year to record "American III: Solitary
Man," with Los Angeles record producer Rick Rubin.
The team's last two
albums, 1994's "American Recordings" and 1996's "Un-caged,"
won Grammy's for best contemporary folk album and best country album,
The new collection,
due in stores next Tuesday, is another superior work that could also be a
Grammy contender. Drawing smartly on Cash's folk, country, rock and gospel
roots, the album mixes Cash compositions with such diverse outside
material as Tom Petty's resolute "I Won't Back Down," Will
Oldham's darkly introspective "I See a Darkness," Nick Cave's
gothic "The Mercy Seat" and Egbert Williams' humorous
But given Cash's
uncertain health status, the most haunting track is the closing number,
"Wayfaring Stranger." The gospel song begins, "I'm just a
poor wayfaring stranger, travelin' through this world below/There is no
sickness, no toil, nor danger/In the bright land to which I go."
Cash shrugs when asked
if it was once intended as a farewell statement.
enjoyed gospel music," he says. "That's part of me. I never saw
this as my last record. I'm a more positive person than that. Some people
thought I might throw a party after I got the news, but my party is just
living each day and enjoying it."
in Black, Back With Columbia,
Cash, wearing his
trademark black shirt and black pants, is in good spirits as he joins some
Columbia Records executives for breakfast in the restaurant of an upscale
They're here to
welcome him back to Columbia, which now distributes Rubin's American
Records label. And, one senses, it's also their chance to meet a hero.
They delight especially in his stories about his early days on Sam
Phillips' Sun Records with Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins.
Cash switched to the
larger Columbia in 1958 for more money and greater artistic freedom. He
tells the executives that he also thought he would get more personal
attention at Columbia.
"I love Sam but
he kind of took us for granted after he sold Elvis' contract to RCA,"
Cash says. "He looked up every time the door opened to see if the
next Elvis had walked in. The thing Carl and I kept telling him was there
isn't another Elvis coming. We played all these shows with Elvis and we
saw what he could do."
Cash used his freedom
and attention at Columbia to make some of the most innovative and
influential recordings of the modern pop era--songs that often addressed
working-class struggle and aspirations.
Born in rural Arkansas
during the Depression, Cash knew hard times. His father worked in sawmills
and as a cotton farmer, barely making enough to support his large family.
Even after Cash became
a star, his music continued to have more commentary and dimension than
most of the honky-tonk tales that competed with him on the charts. His
music demonstrated an artistic integrity that would influence everyone
from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to U2.
That's why much of the
pop-rock industry was shocked in 1986 when Columbia's Nashville division
dropped Cash because his sales had slipped in a time of younger artists
and a more polished pop-country sound.
signed with Mercury, but the relationship didn't prove fruitful. Cash was
disillusioned with the record business when he was approached in 1993 by
Rubin, who wanted to sign him to his then Warner Bros.-affiliated label.
It seemed like a
strange combination. Rubin was best-known for producing such rock and rap
acts as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beastie Boys and Slayer.
But Rubin had also
worked with more mainstream rock acts, such as Tom Petty, and he had an
unfailing respect for vital artistry. He convinced Cash that he was the
one who could help him reestablish himself as a viable force.
And the pairing
worked. Besides winning Grammys, their two albums each sold about 500,000
copies--five to 10 times more than some of Cash's '80s packages
Rubin and Cash were
just about ready to start on their third album when Cash fell onstage as
he tried to pick up a guitar pick during an October 1997 concert in Flint,
It wasn't long before
doctors told Cash he had Shy-Drager's syndrome, which causes progressive
failure of the nervous system. He was told he might have only a year to
the Energy to Record New Album.
As soon as Cash got
out of the hospital in 1997, he was eager to begin work on "Solitary
Man." His body, however, was too weak and he had to spend several
months resting at his home near Nashville and his retreat in Jamaica.
Rubin, in a separate
interview, says doctors warned him to take things slowly. "They said
you can't allow him to work too much because his 'will' will make him work
more than his body is prepared to handle."
Cash began preliminary
work on the new album in 1998 with his son, guitarist John Carter Cash, in
his home studio. But he had only enough energy some days to try only one
or two vocals.
"When he was
laying in the bed in the ICU in 1997 doctors weren't that hopeful,"
his son says, sitting with his father after the breakfast meeting.
"It was a scary time, but in my heart I didn't think he was going to
"This man has the
most amazing resilience. I never lost faith that he would be able to make
a record he would be proud of."
stepped in and began the formal recording process.
"I thought we
would turn up with something," Rubin says. "But I didn't know if
he'd be able to give 100%. There were times we'd get set to record and
we'd have to cancel.
"Then about seven
or eight months ago something happened and he started getting better and
better. He has such presence as an artist and through it all he was still
able to deliver that presence on record. It was amazing to watch
Besides the new album,
Cash and Rubin are thinking about putting out a boxed set of the American
albums plus a full disc of outtakes. Cash estimates that he has recorded
parts or all of 100 songs with Rubin over the last decade.
Don't look, however,
for Cash to tour again. He may do an occasional TV appearance--such as the
1999 concert in which Dylan, Springsteen, U2's Bono, Wyclef Jean, Lyle
Lovett and others paid tribute to him. But he has no desire to spend weeks
on the road, even if his health permitted.
"I really enjoyed
that tribute show, but that night I knew I'd had enough performing,"
he says. "June and I have been on the road so long and we're so
tired. It's time we did some of the other things we've wanted to do in our
He also wants to take
the energy that he put into his touring and apply it to his songwriting.
"I know everyone
will say I've got be out of my skull, but I feel like my recording career
has just begun," he says.
"You know, my
dreams and ambitions after all these years are pretty much the same as
they were at the beginning. I still just want to make records and sing on
the radio. After I finally got on the radio I just wanted to make better
records and that's still what I want to do."
In The UNION LEADER, Manchester NH
PRODUCER HELPED CASH RE-EMERGE ON
Much of the pop-rock industry was shocked in 1986 when Columbia Records'
Nashville division dropped
Johnny Cash because his sales had slipped in a time of younger artists and a
more polished pop-country sound.
Cash subsequently signed with
Mercury, but the relationship didn't prove fruitful, Cash was
disillusioned with the record business when he was approached in 1993 by
producer Rick Rubin, who wanted to sign him to his then Warner Bros-affiliated label.
It seemed like a strange
combination. Rubin was best known for producing such
rock and rap acts as the Red
Hot Chili Peppers, the Beastie Boys and Slayer.
But Rubin had also worked
with more mainstream rock acts, such as Tom Petty. And he had an unfailing
respect for vital artistry.
The pairing with Cash
worked. Besides winning Grammy’s, their two albums each sold about 500,000
copies-five to ten times more than some of Cash's '80's packages registered.
- New York Post
Tuesday, October 17,2000
"American III: Solitary Man"
Tom Petty wrote the words
"You can stand me up at the gates
of hell but I won't back down" - but it isn't until you hear Johnny
Cash slam the words down, spitting in the eye of every bully who poke or
pushed someone who was weaker than them, that the power of the song is
That's how Cash's latest disc "American III: Solitary
starts and through it's 14 songs, it never lessens its grip.
Don't take that as a shot against Petty (who lends his
voice to Cash's effort), it's just that the combination of Johnny's
baritone rumble, his contemplative phrasing and streamlined acoustic
guitar work demands your total attention.
You can't help but focus on the picture that the words he sings
The same happens when Cash renders Neil Diamond's "Solitary
Man," U2's "One" and Nick Cave's lament about waiting for
his executioner to carry out the death sentence in "The Mercy
This is a stark, haunting collection, heartbreakingly grim,
yet like any serious artistic work, there are moments of lightness for
contrast like the lonely-man song "Nobody."
Cash's ability to bridge
the gap between country and rock
is at full power on this record.
On September 12, Willie Nelson will release his first .