(Johnny Cash passed away on Sept. 12, 2003, due to complications from diabetes. The following article was written in August after Cash granted MTV News’ Kurt Loder an interview in his Tennessee home.)
HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — Johnny Cash, a prototype of the hard-living, finger-flipping rock and roll hell-raiser, is 71 years old now, and still a resident in the grand, rambling old house he bought more than 30 years ago on the banks of Old Hickory Lake, half an hour outside of Nashville.
Here, he’s surrounded by the memories of a long life and the artifacts of a lustrous career. There are framed singles — his earliest hits, some on old 78 rpm discs; a room filled with more than 70 guitars, many of them rare (he’s been a life-long collector); and personal letters of admiration from the last five U.S. presidents. Johnny Cash has a lot to look back on.
He was present at the creation of white rock and roll, which is to say rockabilly. Signed to the pivotal Sun Records label in Memphis in 1955, he became part of a pioneering rockabilly roster that included Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and, briefly, the original rockabilly, Elvis Presley.
Rockabillies were, as the name implies, rhythm-and-blues-addled Southern white boys prone to speaking in bop-cat cadences, sculpting their hair into oily pompadours and twitching around in taste-defying threads tailored in eye-catching pink-and-black color schemes. Grown-ups were naturally not thrilled about this, but a nation of bored 1950s youth got real interested right away.
Rockabilly was loud, clattersome, revved-up music, and Johnny Cash was right in the thick of it. But he was never completely a part of it. His stark, almost muttering baritone was a little too dignified for the form, his simple bass-and-guitar backup was a little too austere to raise a real ruckus, and his country inclinations (he grew up on an Arkansas cotton farm, and started out fronting a country trio) were something he never cared to obscure.
He was also a little dark, right from the beginning. On his second Sun single, “Folsom Prison Blues,” released in 1956, he famously sang: “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” This was not especially transgressive in itself — both rock and country music are rich in songs of mayhem. But death has remained an unusually pervasive theme throughout Cash’s career. Love, God, Murder — a three-disc compilation he released in 2000 — devotes one whole CD to songs of homicide, including “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “The Long Black Veil” and, of course, “Delia’s Gone” — the video for which shows Cash shoveling dirt onto the just-dug grave of his recently deceased beloved, who’ll be troubling him no more.
Cash may have set up shop as “the man in black” in order to distinguish himself from the gaudier denizens of the pop-music world, but the image resonates on a deeper level in his music.
All of which is kind of … gangsta, in a way. Johnny Cash has drawn on a deep well of murder and mortality in American music, and everybody pretty much agrees the man’s a master, a modern icon. Today’s rappers, however — who deal with the same subjects in a, shall we say, more immediate way — get nothing but flack. Cash has gotten some flack, too, over the years, but he’s paid it no mind. And he has some advice for under-fire rappers.
“Ignore it,” Cash says. “Do what you do. You can’t let people delegate to you what you should do when it’s coming from way in here [taps heart]. I wouldn’t let anybody influence me into thinking I was doing the wrong thing by singing about death, hell and drugs. ‘Cause I’ve always done that. And I always will.”
Johnny Cash is a country man, and he’s been a fixture on the country charts for much of his nearly 50-year career. But the hits he had right out of the box — starting with “Cry, Cry, Cry” in 1955 and continuing with “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” “There You Go,” “Home of the Blues” and “Guess Things Happen That Way” — also remain undeniable emblems of the dawning rock ‘n’ roll era. (His trademark singles from this period are widely available and conveniently assembled on a Rhino Records compilation called Johnny Cash: The Sun Years.)
Unlike today, when big rock acts tend to tour in coordination with the release of albums that can take as long as a year to cobble together, ’50s rock stars were expected to stay out on the road pretty much permanently, in order to milk what was presumed to be, and usually was, their very transient moment.
So Cash and his Sun stablemates — Perkins, Orbison, the truly unhinged Jerry Lee — were sent out by rattletrap bus on package tours that took them all over the country and up into Canada, too: an endless series of one-nighters fueled by liquor and ambition and whatever else was at hand.
“We were young and wild and crazy,” Cash says today. “As crazy as you can get. At the time we were doin’ these tours, we discovered amphetamines. Or I did, anyway.”
Cash left Sun to sign with Columbia Records in 1958, and he continued having hits: “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “I Got Stripes,” “Five Feet High and Rising.” But he was also sinking into a morass of drugs and alcohol, and he stayed sunk for nearly a decade.
He would occasionally bobble up for air, though. In 1963, he scored a Top 20 pop hit with “Ring of Fire,” a song co-written by June Carter, of the fabled country-music clan, the Carter Family. (The song has since been covered by everyone from Blondie to Grace Jones to Social Distortion.)
Carter and Cash started working together and were attracted to one another early on. Unfortunately, each was married to someone else at the time.
So Cash continued his downward spiral. Raised as a devout Christian, he’d originally hoped to record gospel songs; but now he was more often than not angry and violent and unreliable. He trashed the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, a venerable country showcase, when told he couldn’t perform there. He was arrested in Texas for attempting to smuggle amphetamines across the Mexican border in his guitar case. Eventually, inevitably, he overdosed.
And yet, he says he has a lot to look forward to right now. The video for his autumnal version of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” is nominated for six MTV Video Music Awards, and despite his infirmities, he dearly hopes to be on hand to see what it wins. [“Hurt” won an MTV Video Music Award for cinematography.] Then, right afterward, he’s scheduled to fly out to Los Angeles to begin work on American V, the fifth album of his singular 10-year collaboration with the eclectic producer Rick Rubin.
He doesn’t have to do any of this, of course. There’s nothing left to prove. He keeps going, he says — keeps making music — because it’s one of the last things his late wife insisted that he do.
“She told me in the hospital, ‘Don’t worry about me … go to work.’ Three days after the funeral — everybody said, ‘You’re crazy,’ but three days after the funeral, I was in the studio. And I stayed in the studio for two weeks.”
Still at it, even though he’s already a presiding eminence of American popular music: not exactly rock, not completely country, just … Johnny Cash. He knows his own time will be up sooner rather than later, but he seems completely at peace.
“Oh, I expect my life to end pretty soon,” he says. “You know, I’m 71 years old. I have great faith, though. I have unshakeable faith.”
And despite all the ups and way-downs of his long life, Johnny Cash says he has no regrets.
“I used to,” he says, “But I forgave myself. When God forgave me, I figured I’d better do it, too.”