Behind the Footlights at the Cash Tribute

Family and Friends Reminisce Backstage

View Cash family photos from Rosanne Cash.

Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium was appropriately chosen to host the celebration Monday (Nov. 10) honoring the late Johnny Cash. The Ryan — widely known as the “mother church of country music” — was the right setting for the memorial tribute since Cash spent many of his earlier years there. It’s where he first met June Carter, it’s where he performed on the Grand Ole Opry until he kicked out the stage’s footlights in a fit of rage and it was that same stage where his national prime time television show brought rock, country and folk acts together. The concert airs on CMT Saturday (Nov. 15) at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

Kris Kristofferson, who credits Cash with launching his career, said he first met Cash there.

“The Ryman was the first place I ever saw Johnny Cash live and in color,” Kristofferson said in the pressroom at Tootsie’s, the historic nightspot in the alley behind the Ryman. “I was still in [U.S. Army] uniform, and [legendary songwriter] Marijohn Wilkin was showing me around town here. I was on leave at the time. I saw John backstage, and he was prowling around like a caged animal back there and just as skinny as a rake and very excited looking. For someone whose big hero was first Hank Williams, I guess there’s an attractive thing about the self-destructive personality. John was surely that back then.

“She [Wilkin] introduced me to him, and I shook hands, and it was an electric experience. I knew at that moment that I was going to get out of the Army, and I was going to come back here, and if I couldn’t be a songwriter, I could at least be around people like him and maybe write about him someday.”

Likewise, Larry Gatlin thanked Cash for his break in the music business. He met him while working as a janitor at Nashville’s WLAC-TV when the singer would come in to film commercials for American Oil. Eventually, June heard Gatlin sing at a church service, and after her persistent persuasion, Cash later listened to the young hopeful.

“He took me back in the pastor’s office,” Gatlin recalled. “He said, ’Son …we’re making a movie about the life of Jesus, and we’re going to write some songs for it. You want to help us out, son? We’ll be at CBS studio tomorrow.’ I said, ’Mr. Cash, I got fired the day before yesterday at WLAC. I’ll be there.’ So, on Friday, I was pushing a broom, and on Monday I was sitting at the feet of one of the great humans of history.”

His respect for Cash inspired Gatlin to later name his son, Joshua Cash Gatlin, after his musical mentor.

“That entity [Cash] took us out of the beer joints and roadhouses of the world, and there’s nothing wrong with a good beer joint. God bless Tootsie. He [Cash] took us almost single-handedly out of the little county fairs, and my brothers and I got to sing at Carnegie Hall two weeks ago this Friday night [Oct. 24] because John Cash sang at Carnegie Hall.”

Johnny and June often took aspiring singer-songwriters under their wings of support. “June called one day out of the blue and offered us a place to live,” Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn remembered. He and his wife had just moved to Nashville after Dunn had an offer to write for Sony. “They had this great pre-Civil War log house outside Hendersonville, and we lived there almost two years while Kix and I put Brooks & Dunn together,” Ronnie said.

Cash also wielded the power to make fellow rebels have a cause. “Johnny Cash was the first person that made me feel like I was all right being in south Texas and having long hair and wearing cowboy boots,” country rocker Steve Earle said.

“What he used to say about me is that I was an Indian in a white man’s camp, and that’s why he identified with me. He was an outsider here. He came here from Memphis, and he did things differently than other people did. He wrote songs, and this town is not necessarily friendly to singer-songwriters because of the publishing industry here. It’s always been that way.”

Cash’s songwriting brilliance was often overshadowed by his electrifying presence that shook actor Tim Robbins, who asked Cash to pen a tune for the movie soundtrack, Dead Man Walking.

“He called my up at my house, and someone said you’ve got to come to the phone and they said hurry,” Robbins said. “I picked up the phone. He said, ’Hello, this is Johnny Cash.’ Oh, my God! I couldn’t talk. This is one of my heroes.”

The family asked Robbins to host the Johnny Cash Memorial Tribute for the public.

“Dad would have loved it,” Rosanne Cash said. “We had a private funeral [for dad], and we had had a public funeral for June, and the family — we couldn’t go through another public funeral. It was too soon. We wanted to honor dad in a way that people who loved him could participate.”

Kid Rock, who came to the concert because of his respect for Cash, said he blew his first encounter with the famous singer. “I’m probably the only dip sh** that didn’t return the phone call to go to dinner,” he says with a laugh.

Kid Rock said he was holed up in Jamaica with a pretty girl and had the phone turned off. “It turns out that Johnny was down there and left me a message and set me a place for dinner, and I didn’t show up. So, now I answer my phone all the time, needless to say.”

His best memory, though, was receiving a package from Cash that contained a signed copy of American IV: The Man Comes Around. “It says “To Kid Rock, thanks for keeping the music alive, a fan, John Cash.’ And it was signed. I was like whoa! That was pretty heavy. That meant a lot to me just as a singer and songwriter. That’s probably one of the greatest treasures that I have.”

Huey Lewis reluctantly recalled his inaugural meeting with Cash. The two men were dining together in London after attending a play where Cash’s stepdaughter, Carlene Carter, had a role.

“I was in awe of him, obviously,” said Lewis. “We’re just kind of making small talk, and I think he complimented me. I was amazed that he knew who I was. He said something like ’Huey, you do an awful good job.’ And I said, ’Well, you know it’s easy.’ And he said, ’If it was easy, every son-of-a-bitch would have done it.’

’I said where are you staying?’ He said, ’I’m staying at the Mayfair Holiday Inn.’ I said, ’Do you always stay there?’ He said, ’I ain’t stayed there but once, and that was back when I was hanging out with Bob Dylan, who also turned me on to my first joint.’ He said, ’He also turned the Beatles on.'”

Despite the demands of show business, Cash still managed to have a strong influence on his family.

“He had a huge influence on me about being a songwriter mainly and also about being brave to be unique,” Carlene Carter said. “He always said it was better to be like one-of-a-kind instead of one like many, which kind of gave me license to be able to jump up and down and act like a fool sometimes. He really inspired me a lot in my youth because we would sit on the bus when I was like between the ages of 10 on up, and he taught me songs, Dylan songs, [and] Eric Anderson songs. I mean he really educated us about music.”

Sometimes, she learned firsthand as guests like Steppenwolf, the Monkees and Eric Clapton dropped by the house. “I got to see Paul McCartney sit down and play ’Lady Madonna’ on my piano. I mean, this doesn’t happen to every kid in the world. I’m very proud of … the parents that I have had.”

“My father, first of all, was a good man, and that’s hopefully the major influence I saw from his life,” John Carter Cash said. “I think, later on in my life, I learned to respect his creativity, his music, [and] his legacy. There’s a great heritage to be respected there whether I’m related to him or not.”

“His legacy, to me, is one of integrity,” his daughter, Rosanne Cash, believes. “I think people are starved for integrity in artists, in politicians, in everyone. He embodied integrity. He was fully himself. He loved being Johnny Cash. He filled up the role, and I think that’s what people respond to — that kind of honesty, that degree of truth and also that he could contain all of his paradoxes, dark and light. He was a whole person. That will be his legacy.”

The Johnny Cash Memorial Tribute: A Celebration of Friends and Family will air on CMT Saturday (Nov. 15) at 8 p.m. ET/PT and Sunday (Nov. 16) at 2 p.m. ET/PT.