As the son of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash and the grandson of founding Carter Family matriarch Maybelle Carter, John Carter Cash has been in a unique situation in country music. In addition to producing his mother’s final album, Wildwood Flower, and his father’s last recording sessions, he also produced the new CD, The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family.
In an interview with CMT.com, John Carter Cash discusses that album and his family’s rich musical heritage.
CMT: It must have been a bittersweet experience for you to produce both your mother’s and father’s last recordings.
Cash: They were there all the way. My dad’s heart never stopped through it all, you know, as far as making music and everything. He memorized every word to “Engine One-Forty-Three.” His soul was right there all the way. We recorded that a little over two weeks [before he died]. It was I think the 21st of August or the 22nd. Ironically, I mixed it in the studio, because my engineer was out with tonsillitis. So it ended up that I mixed it one-on-one with my dad. It was hard listening to it. The memory of it is painful now, but it’s great to remember that he had this great persistence and this great intensity to his spirit that kept him going. He couldn’t stop. He worked right up till the end. Right after my mother died, my dad and I went into the studio and he recorded a song called “I Found You Among the Roses.” It’s a love song, an old 1920s pop ballad, the Carter Family recorded. It goes, “It’s rose time, it’s June time.” He was, of course, heartbroken after her death. He wanted that song to be his choice on this album. But I think it was a little bit too personal for him. I presented to him later “Engine One-Forty-Three.” He said, “Hell, yeah! I cut that in the ’60s.” So he said, “I want to do that song, ‘Engine One-Forty-Three.'” I think he just couldn’t listen to “I Found You Among the Roses.” It was just a little too close to the heart.
What’s the history of the song your mother does here, “Hold Fast to the Right”?
That’s from the sessions for [her last album] Wildwood Flower. That’s a song she sang to me when I was a child. I can remember her being onstage and looking me right in the eye as she sang that.
In picking songs, did you just start with the Bear Family box set? [The German record label Bear Family issued a 12-CD box set on the Carter Family.].
That was my Bible. My mother got it for me years back, and I studied it. I sat down with it and pulled out one CD at a time and played it all the way through and started picking songs off each CD, either beautiful things that I had never heard before, just masterworks or great classics that weren’t quite as well known. Because you won’t hear another artists’ version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” that is quite the equal of the Carter Family’s original. So I used it to find these great jewels. And also to find great songs that I knew would work with artists today, such as “You Are My Flower” and “Gold Watch and Chain.” In terms of picking the artists, luckily these are people I have know my whole life. Ricky [Skaggs] and the Whites and Willie [Nelson] and Marty Stuart — Marty’s a neighbor. I could have contacted a lot of rock artists, but I wanted to go to what the next step was from the original Carter Family. To go from the original to the true second generation, whether it be because of bloodline and music or whether it be from history because of Janette [Carter] and Joe [Carter] and my mom and my dad and George [Jones]. Because that was the next in line pretty much in country music after the original Carter Family. Of course, there were many in between, but these were the … the people that felt the closest to the timeline, like Earl Scruggs, who recorded with Maybelle Carter.
In recording, did you give the artists free rein or direct them a bit?
I didn’t direct things one way or another It was a matter of letting the emotions work in the studio, of the artists interpreting the songs as they would. Of course, I directed some artists to songs. When I found “Never Let the Devil Get the Upper Hand of You,” my jaw just dropped. I found the old 78 of that, and Marty did a great version of it. There are so many great songs like that, like “Will My Mother Know Me There.” It was a great opportunity for artists to listen to different songs. Sheryl [Crow] went back and forth over several different songs, because she loved so many. That song [“No Depression in Heaven”] is special, even though it’s not known that much, and people know the title because of the magazine [the alt.country magazine No Depression] but not necessarily the song. George Jones immediately said he wanted to do “Worried Man Blues” because he knew it from his childhood. And it’s very fitting for George — it goes electric here. Rosanne [Cash] has been singing “The Winding Stream” her whole life.
Pairing the Peasall Sisters with Emmylou Harris seemed a natural thing for “On the Sea of Galilee”?
Yes. My wife teaches fiddle lessons to Leah Peasall, and I’ve watched them grow through the years. There’s a new generation of traditionalists, and I believe their heart is in it. In talking to Emmylou, I said, “Have you thought about singing with these little girls?” You know, I had heard my mother singing this song with Helen and Anita [her sisters] and Maybelle, and I wanted to hear these girls’ voices on it.
You were only about 8 or 9 years old when both Sara and Maybelle died?
Yes. I knew Sara and her husband, Coy, from going up to Virginia. Sara and Maybelle were very sweet. My biggest memories of Maybelle are of sitting on her front porch and eating sliced tomato sandwiches and her homemade pickles. And watching her play on stage. When you’re 8 years old, you sort of take it for granted, you know, “That’s my grandma.” It didn’t sink in to me that she was this great figure in American music. She was very humble and didn’t realize that she was that revered.
“Little Moses” by A.P. and Sara’s children Joe and Janette really evokes the spirit and the sound of the Carters.
They’ve been singing that their whole lives, and it’s just a perfect representation of who they are. There’s nothing purer than Janette Carter with an autoharp. There are not many people out there who can play the harp anymore.
“Bear Creek Blues” is the other electric song here
John [Prine] said he had been singing it a long time, that it had become one of his standards. That’s one of the more rocking and rolling songs that he does. You can hear the electric guitar as well as his acoustic guitar on that track.
Willie’s version of “You Are My Flower” has surprised some people.
When people hear that, they say, “Well, Willie is not playing that the way Maybelle did.” That’s right! But he’s Willie Nelson! He’s doing it his own way, and he’s got that Texas flair in it. I felt it was a very natural song for him to do. Willie is the master.
“Single Girl Married Girl” is a real showcase for Earl Scruggs on guitar.
Not too many people realize that Earl [Scruggs] besides being the master of the banjo is also an excellent guitar player, so it was great seeing him and Randy [Scruggs] playing behind Shawn [Colvin] on that. To hear that style that he learned from Maybelle is wonderful.
How did you come to pair the Whites with “Will My Mother Know Me There”?
That’s a very personal song for all of us. Sharon and Cheryl’s mother, Buck’s wife, died not that long ago. I went to her funeral. When I began looking into the Carter catalog and came across “Will My Mother Know Me There,” it seemed like such a joyful number and such a song of the spirit that I could hear them all singing it together. Sharon is married to Ricky [Skaggs], who plays guitar on there and sings harmony. That’s one of the oldest Carter songs; it was the B-side of a single.
Any thoughts of doing volume two of The Unbroken Circle?
That may well happen. There are a whole lot of Carter Family songs.