The new book Cash: An American Man (CMT/Pocket Books) is an affectionate and respectful look at Johnny Cash, the man. Author Bill Miller’s introduction to the world of Johnny Cash came as an awestruck kid. Standing at the front of the stage to take a picture of the Man in Black, Miller suddenly found himself the recipient of Cash’s eye contact, followed by a harmonica that was tossed to him. That began a lifelong friendship, as well as a collection of Cash memorabilia. Miller has administered the official Cash Web site for years, ran Cash’s fan souvenir service for a time and was instrumental in the Cash fan club.
How did the book come about?
Prior to Johnny’s death, I was approached by a company that wanted to do a magazine on him using a lot of the pictures from my collection. I wasn’t interested. Then the same people came back and said there’s interest in a photo book on Johnny Cash. I said, “I’m not interested in just a photo book … but what I would be interested in is something that I could share some of my experiences and relate to people the human being that I knew as Johnny Cash as opposed to the big entertainer.” They said, “Well, nobody knows who you are.” I sat and talked with one of them, and some of my stories started coming out. I looked over at him, and there was a tear coming down his face. He said, “Bill, this is going to be your book.” So — I wasn’t out shopping a book. I have to believe it was meant to happen because — with all these books on Johnny coming out — I think it’s important that one is written by somebody who was able to observe him over all that period and really tell what kind of guy he was.
There are some very touching letters to friends and especially to his children.
You know, my name is on the book as author, but this is really Johnny’s book because it’s his letters and his documents and his things that really tell the story. I’m just weaving it all together. But it’s his story.
What’s your personal history with Cash?
When I first became aware of him I was a 9-year-old kid in the third grade. I wasn’t into music. I was into G.I. Joe and chasing lizards in the desert. A girl in the third grade who I had a crush on brought Folsom Prison [Cash's live album] to school. The minute it started spinning and I heard that intro — “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash — I’ve never heard anything like this before. I went home and begged my parents to let me get a record. I talked them into taking me into Indio [Calif.] — a town of about 6,000 — where I was able to get Folsom Prison and later San Quentin. In ’73, we had moved to New Mexico. He was playing in Denver, Colo. I was 13 at the time and talked my dad into taking me. It was about a five-hour drive, so it took a lot of courage to ask him. We were in the last row in this vast arena and could barely see the stage. I went down to take pictures at the stage. By the time I get there he is done playing “Orange Blossom Special,” and I raised my camera. He looked me straight in the eye and tossed me the harmonica. I walked out in the hallway to check out my newfound prize — and there was June, standing alone. I introduced myself, and she signed my fan-club badge [both the badge and harmonica are pictured in the book]. When Johnny left the stage, I ran ahead and planted myself between him and the exit. He looked down at me, stuck out his hand and said, “Hey son, how you doing?”
So you stayed in touch over the years?
After that, anytime he was within a few hundred miles I would get to the shows and started being admitted backstage and spent the rest of my childhood and young adult life backstage with Johnny Cash. As I got older, we were able to relate more on an adult basis, and that’s how the friendship developed and continued. He’d pull up a chair and sit down and take his shoes off after he left the stage and put his feet up and make conversation. I have to tell you, I was always awed by his presence. He was such a formidable presence. But as time progressed, you have to put that away and just relate to him on a human basis. Because that’s what he really enjoyed.
Did your collection of artifacts build slowly, piece by piece?
The House of Cash [a complex housing Cash's offices, museum and gift shop. It was closed after a flood.] went away, and for all these years I was amassing this giant collection — with Air Force uniforms and costumes and guitars and handwritten lyrics and everything else you can imagine, not knowing or not really realizing that someday this would be the lasting Johnny Cash artifact legacy out there. From time to time, I would get envelopes in the mail from him. Once he sent me the proclamation from the Tennessee legislature naming Johnny Cash Parkway. I called Kelly [Kelly Hancock at the House of Cash] and said, “I think you sent me something by accident. I’m sure this is something John would want to keep.” She said, “Johnny handed me this and said it was something that Bill Miller could use.” Then, when I was at the house for Johnny’s and June’s 25th wedding anniversary, he said, “Stop by the office tomorrow. I have something for you.” I got over there and saw a guitar in a case on the conference table. Then I did a double take. There was an envelope with my name on it in his handwriting. In it is the letter that’s shown in the book. I never asked for anything, but he just kept on doing it. I think he realized that something important was going on in building this archive.
There are some very spirited folk art depictions of Cash in the book. I was especially taken by a statue of Johnny and June with the inscription “The Roses Will Bloom Again.”
I don’t have a Johnny Cash museum in my house, but we have a few things on the shelf that runs around our den. I always had that up there. People would look at it and kind of laugh, and I’d say, “Yeah, ain’t that tacky.” But after Johnny and June died, I took that down for some reason and looked at it and thought it was very poignant, because June loved flowers so much. But at the time that I got it, “The Roses Will Bloom Again” had no meaning to me. Between June’s love of flowers and Johnny’s last request for June — “In lieu of donations, send flowers. I want my baby to have a lot of flowers.” — I thought, man, this is incredible! And then when he died, I thought: You know, the roses will bloom again. They’re together again.
There are some sketches in the book that Johnny did for covers for some albums that he never got to make.
His mind never stopped. The guy never sat down and thought about nothing. That was something that happened in a lull in his recording career. I think he was frustrated that he wasn’t able to record new great albums. … That’s like the gospel album he wanted to do all his life and never was able to. Then it was finally released after he died. So it was an interesting full circle. He started out with Sam Phillips [at Sun Records] and couldn’t get anywhere doing a gospel album and ended his life wanting to do a gospel album, and neither was ever really achieved during his lifetime.
It was interesting that you had him fill out a collector’s questionnaire form, in which he describes his love of collecting.
He was a collector. June really loved to collect furniture and antiques and porcelain and fine china and jewelry, but what Johnny liked were things that he could relate to. If he read a book on Indians, he would get a fascination with that and go out and seek things to represent whatever fascinated him. I think it’s really cool that he was a collector all of his life — but not of things of high monetary value. He was a true collector as opposed to an investor. He bought only things that had a meaning to him, whether it was worth a dollar or a million dollars.
It’s surprising to discover in your documents that Cash had taken extensive correspondence courses in Bible study to the extent that he fulfilled the requirements for a doctorate in Bible studies.
That’s something he did over the years in the early to mid-’70s while he was on the road. That was a good thing for him, again because he was a guy of such high energy that idle time wasn’t good. He just threw himself into that, and there are literally thousands of pages of tests that he took and wrote essays. His thirst for the Bible was never quenched right up to the end.
You end the book appropriately with the last song he wrote, “My Lord Has Gone.” Appropriate, but sad.
That’s very prophetic. And the poem he wrote for June after she died. Talk about a tearjerker. You can just feel his heart break in that. After June died, his heart wasn’t broken. It was ripped out.
What is the most unique Cash object in your archive?
It’s hard to say. I think that the thing that is my very favorite is going to sound crazy, because it’s certainly not the most important. But the thing I think that means the most to me is the letter that he wrote to my baby right after he was born. John had just come off the road, he returns to the office and has 10 million things pulling at him, 6,000 things to sign, 1,200 phone calls to return. And amid all of this he finds the birth announcement that we sent out to a hundred people. So he finds it and says, “Hey, Bill just had a son, and I’m gonna sit down and write that boy a letter.” From that day on, there wasn’t a time when I saw Johnny that he didn’t say these exact words: “How’s my boy?” My son is Johnny’s godson, but we didn’t ask Johnny to be his godfather. Johnny proclaimed him his godson. And not to me directly. After we returned from the anniversary party when he gave me the guitar, I was on the city council at the time, and there was an article about me in the local paper. The newspaper reporter had actually gotten Johnny on the phone — and that’s quite a feat because he wasn’t a fan of doing interviews. The headline read “Millers Attend Cash Event in Nashville.” The paper hadn’t talked to me, but in reading the article they’re quoting Johnny as saying, “Bill named his son after me, and I’m his godfather.” I was just blown away.
In going through all of these objects, did you find anything that surprised you?
After he died, it was really hard to go through these things — period. But when you go back and read things like the letter to his children, you realize that this was a man who probably didn’t want to be on the road all the time, but he was at a point in his career where he really didn’t have a choice. I think that he carried a certain degree of guilt with him throughout his entire life about not being there every day. That letter to his children gave a lot of insight. The poem he wrote for June — where he had gotten up ahead of her and made the coffee and was listening for her footsteps on the stairs — those are the sorts of things that really show what a sensitive, caring person he was.
What do you see as Johnny Cash’s legacy?
I think if you asked Johnny Cash, “How would you like to be summed up when it’s all said and done? When you consider the music, when you consider the songwriting, when you consider the awards — how would you like to be summed up?” I think John would say, “I would like to be remembered simply as a good man.”
To view photos and other memorabilia included in the book, visit Johnny Cash’s artist page at CMT.com.