Johnny Cash: The Life Book Excerpt

New Biography Explores the Inner-Layers of the Legendary Star

In Johnny Cash: The Life, music journalist and Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn brings his enduring friendship with the late star into print, revealing Cash’s motivations and personal struggles through interviews with him and his inner circle of friends and family.

Hilburn was the only journalist present at Cash’s famous Folsom Prison concert in 1968 and last interviewed the Man in Black in 2003. His book sheds light on aspects of the private and public turmoil of Cash’s life that even diehard fans may not know.

In this first chapter from Johnny Cash: The Life, Hilburn traces Cash’s early years in Dyess Ark., all the way through his enlistment in the Air Force.

Chapter 1
DYESS AND THE DREAM

I
The two-and-a-half-mile walk from the Cash family’s five-room, federally assisted farmhouse in rural Dyess, Arkansas, to the town center was just long enough for young J.R. to work up a head full of dreams. For years, the third son of Ray and Carrie Cash walked the narrow gravel road with his schoolboy pals, all of them fantasizing about being cowboy movie stars like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. But J.R. most enjoyed walking the road alone, especially at night, when the darkness felt like a shield against the rest of the world, leaving him free to pursue a dream that was far more important than he wanted to admit.

On those nights, J.R. would frequently sing to himself, he later told friends when reminiscing about his childhood days, partially to calm his nerves when he heard the rustling of cottonmouth snakes in the grass or the howl of prowling panthers in the woods a few hundred yards away. Years later, some of J.R.’s old chums and even his younger sister Joanne chuckled at the idea of panthers in the woods. Snakes, yes — maybe even an occasional bobcat — but no one knew anything about panthers. “He had a real vivid imagination,” says A. J. Henson, who sometimes walked that gravel road with his friend. Even Cash himself often admitted that he never let facts interfere with a good story. But as Joanne put it, there’s no doubting one thing about the Dyess years: J.R. loved to sing. There was something about music that was even more magical to him than movies, a fascination that came naturally. His family, especially his mother, had always turned to songs for comfort and inspiration. Soon after he started grade school, J.R. knew he wanted to be a singer on the radio, and he began to think of that gravel road at night as his own secret stage. When he was feeling especially good, he’d stop after a song, look up at the Arkansas moon, and take a bow.

The first song J.R. remembered hearing was the old hymn “I Am Bound for the Promised Land.” He was just three years old, but he joined the chorus — Oh who will come and go with me?/I am bound for the promised land — as his mother sang during the 250-mile journey in a flatbed truck that took the family and its little bit of furniture across Arkansas. They had left his birthplace of Kingsland in the hill country of the south-central part of the state to travel to the fertile flat black delta land of Dyess in the northeast corner. Thanks to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program, they were about to claim what she told them would be their own promised land on earth.

But for most of the two-day trip in March of 1935, J.R. and his older brothers, Roy (born 1921) and Jack (1929), huddled together under a tarpaulin in the bed of the truck, trying to protect themselves from the punishing cold and rain. The ride along muddy roads was all the more frightening because the vehicle frequently hit potholes with such force that the boys feared the wheels might be knocked loose at any moment. Their mother tried to calm them and her two daughters, Reba (1934) and Louise (1923), with music and the assurance that God was watching over the family.

The story of Dyess had its roots in the Great Depression, when most of the farmers in the state, including J.R.’s father, struggled to survive. As the price of a five-hundred-pound bale of cotton dropped from $125 in 1928 to $35 in 1932, there was panic among farmers over how to provide for their families. President Roosevelt, according to the popular version of a complicated bureaucratic backstory, came to the rescue with a plan to give distraught workers the chance of a more secure future. Through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, funds were allocated to build small cooperative communities around the country to provide some deserving farmers with homes, twenty acres of land, and a small annual stipend for food and clothing. The social experiment also called for new buildings to house support services, including a cotton gin, general store, restaurant, school, hospital, post office, and gas station.

Officially titled Colonization Project No. 1, Dyess was one of the first cooperatives. In May 1934, more than 1,300 workers taken from Arkansas’s welfare rolls had started building houses and roads on a sixteen-thousand-acre spread of land. At the same time, the government began taking applications for Dyess farmers. Only Caucasians were eligible. This wasn’t welfare, the applicants were told. The town’s new arrivals had to work the land and then use money from the crops, chiefly cotton, to repay the government the cost of the housing, the property, and the stipend before they could receive the deed to the property. When Ray Cash heard about the Dyess project on the radio, he decided in an instant to apply. Thousands of destitute men lined up at government offices throughout the state to apply for only five hundred homesteads. Ray Cash wasn’t intimidated. He presented himself as just the kind of hardworking, industrious family man and fiercely patriotic American that he felt the government administrators were seeking. His paternal roots in North America dated back to 1667, when one of his ancestors, William Cash, came across the Atlantic from Scotland on the ship Good Intent and settled in Essex County, Massachusetts. William’s descendants then migrated to Virginia in the early 1700s and on to Georgia, where Ray Cash’s grandfather Reuben Cash was born.

After Reuben’s plantation was destroyed by General William T. Sherman’s troops during the Civil War, the former Confederate soldier moved west to Arkansas in 1866. Ray’s father, William Henry Cash, was six. He grew up to be a farmer and a Baptist preacher, a circuit rider who served four widely separated counties. Ray, one of twelve children, was born in 1897.

In the interview process for the Dyess land, Ray stressed not only his military service (he had served in France briefly during World War I), but also how hard he had worked to support his family after farming became unprofitable. He’d pursued odd jobs, sometimes walking miles to cut wood at a sawmill or hopping a freight train to Charleston, Mississippi, to help dismantle a chemical plant. Still, there were no guarantees that he would be chosen, and he was desperate to secure some kind of permanent work. After finishing the rigorous interview, he suffered a week of sleepless nights before getting the good news. Ray Cash was one of just five applicants from all of Cleveland County to be accepted for the program.

Following the grueling truck ride from Kingsland, the Cashes arrived at their new home in Dyess, carried in the colony records as house number 226 on Road 3. Years later, photos of early Dyess houses make the residences look primitive and bare-boned, bringing to mind Walker Evans’ stark photos of American poverty during the Great Depression. Indeed, the days of rainfall had left the mud so deep and thick on the property that Ray had to leave the truck a hundred yards away from the house and carry J.R. the rest of the way. Still, the new home looked like a mansion to the Cashes. It had been painted white with green trim, and there were glass panes instead of burlap sacks in the windows. The family of seven walked around the house and the barn, admiring them the way farmers might examine a prize cow.

Yet the excitement soon wore off as Ray and his oldest son, Roy, started the arduous work of clearing land. In Johnny Cash: The Autobiography in 1997, Cash described the tortured colony land as a “jungle — I mean real jungle. Cottonwood and ash and hickory as well as scrub oak and cypress, the trees and vines and bushes tangled up so thick in places that you couldn’t get through, some of it underwater.”

According to Cash, his father and brother attacked the land from dawn to nightfall, six days a week, “starting on the highest ground and working their way downward foot by foot, cutting with saws and axes and Kaiser blades — long-handled machetes — and then dynamiting and burning out the stumps.” The ordeal was so formidable that by the start of planting season that first spring, the Cashes had been able to clear only about three of the twenty acres. Dozens of new Dyess residents gave up and moved on, grumbling that the whole program was a sham. There were inevitable whispers about political corruption — and even outsiders began asking questions. Though funds for the colony came from the federal government, the colony owed its existence to a young landowner and county election commissioner in Arkansas more than it did to anyone in Washington, D.C. It was this man that the colony would eventually be named for: William Reynolds Dyess.

Moved by the impact of the Depression on the state’s farmers, Dyess had begun campaigning in the early 1930s for a government program to aid farmers and their families. After hearing about the FERA program, W. R. Dyess contacted Harry Hopkins, the program’s director in Washington, and came away with more than $3 million. At the same time, Dyess was named FERA representative for Arkansas. He then chose an area about twenty miles from his hometown of Osceola to build the colony. The location and subsequent purchase raised eyebrows. When word got out in 1934 that Dyess was thinking of running for governor or possibly U.S. senator, would-be opponents started asking ticklish questions about the colony.

The acreage in question was part of a three-county stretch in Arkansas known as the “sunken lands” — territory redesigned by a series of earthquakes in 1811 and 1812. The shifts in the ground caused by the quakes, centered just thirty miles northeast of the future site of Dyess, caused various stretches of land to sink up to fifty feet in places. Water rushed in, turning much of the area into swampland overrun with tangled vegetation and the mushy soil that locals referred to as “gumbo.”

Why, Dyess’s detractors wanted to know, did the program director pick this particular land — land that no farmer in his right mind would have chosen? Was the purchase a favor for Lee Wilson, a family friend who owned the sodden acreage? Backers of the project countered that there was desperation in the air in Arkansas in the 1930s and the colony property was dirt cheap. The state would really have been under fire, they maintained, if Dyess had used federal funds to buy top-grade farmland. By buying property that, in essence, no one else wanted, he made sure that the colony got more land for its money. That was the view ultimately accepted by most Dyess residents, who dismissed the small group of dissenters in the colony as a “radical” or “troublemaking” fringe.

Still, there was enough of a stir that, in 1934, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration sent three men to investigate the complaints against W. R. Dyess. One member of the team did accuse Dyess of indiscretion in spending some of the money to improve roads on noncolony property that he and Wilson owned. Otherwise, the trio found no evidence of criminal acts. In Washington, Harry Hopkins made no attempt to remove or penalize Dyess. Additional complaints surfaced later about check fraud and payroll irregularities, but Dyess’ supporters dismissed them as smears by political opponents, and formal investigations revealed no serious problems. On January 24, 1936, just months before the formal incorporation of the colony, the issue of W. R. Dyess became history; the man behind the dream was killed in a plane crash. But the residents of the new colony had always thought of President Roosevelt — not their neighbor — as their savior. FDR’s comforting voice on the radio and his New Deal policies were giving millions of people hope. The president was beloved by the people of Dyess, and he took on saintly qualities to young J.R. Roosevelt never visited the colony, but his wife, Eleanor, was present on June 9, 1936, for the dedication of the new administration building.

Mrs. Roosevelt, who had vigorously encouraged Harry Hopkins’s work in providing emergency relief around the country, arrived with a car and driver, accompanied by four state troopers on motorcycles. After delivering a short speech from the porch of the two-story building, she spent hours shaking hands with all of the 2,500 or so folks who turned out, including J.R. At least that’s the way he remembered it. His boyhood friend J. E. Huff later maintained that Mrs. Roosevelt patted them both on the head. Either way, J.R. talked his mother and father into staying in the town center so he could watch through the Dyess Café window as she ate dinner.

The fact that the government was responsible for giving his family and neighbors a second chance left the youngster with a deep patriotism and a profound respect for the American presidency.

II

J.R. wasn’t expected to pick cotton until he was six, but he started carrying water to the rest of the family in the fields by his fourth birthday, and he’d often linger just to sing gospel songs with them. He’d also sit at his mother’s feet at night in the family living room as she played the same songs on an acoustic guitar or the family’s $37 upright piano. The tunes all came from an old Baptist hymn book, and they became ingrained in him; J.R. would sing at least one, often “I’ll Fly Away” or “Softly and Tenderly,” to himself almost every day for much of his life. In future years when overwhelmed by drugs and other pressures, he would often isolate himself and turn to music as a refuge; the purity of music was a place of comfort and affirmation.

Carrie Cash loved gospel music and listened to it on the battery-powered Sears radio that Ray bought for the family, a luxury in their struggling farm community. J.R. sat with his mother and listened to the gospel singers, but he was also drawn to the country music singers his brother Roy favored. As he sat by the radio, J.R. was fascinated to see how Roy listened to the country singers with the same devotion that his mother showed toward her gospel singers. Though it took him years to put it into words, he found something warmly satisfying in the way music brought people together and lifted their spirits. Each moment with the radio was especially valued because playing time was limited; it was expensive to get the battery charged.

J.R. soon followed the singers he heard on the radio the way other boys in Dyess would later collect baseball cards; he was enthralled by them, learning their names and individual vocal styles, and he had an uncanny memory for lyrics. He’d often challenge Roy to see who knew the most words to various country hits of the day, and J.R. invariably won. He also came to know where the country music stations were on the dial — whether it was WLW in Cincinnati or a border station in Mexico, or WSM in Nashville — and when his favorite shows aired so he could make the most of his precious listening minutes.

The youngster didn’t just listen to country and gospel, however. Some stations played country and pop, and the music-hungry boy looked forward to hearing anything by Bing Crosby or, later, the early rhythm and blues of the Ink Spots. As he got older, J.R. would expand his listening habits to include the fifteen-minute mystery dramas, such as I Love a Mystery and Inner Sanctum. He also followed comedy and quiz shows such as the Jack Benny show and Truth or Consequences. But his first loves remained country and gospel music.

As it happened, the first country singer J.R. recalled hearing was Jimmie Rodgers, who was known to millions of fans in the South and Southwest in the late 1920s and early 1930s as the “Singing Brakeman,” because he had worked on and frequently sang about the railroads. Thanks to an appealing bluesy-country approach and songs about a wanderlust lifestyle that stirred the imagination of his mostly rural audience, Rodgers was the first country music superstar. The first Rodgers song J.R. heard was “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride,” a melancholy tale of a lonely man dying in a boxcar on a freezing night far away from home. J.R. was about five, and the record reminded him of his own anxious journey from Kingsland as well as the times he’d watched his father hop off a freight when returning from one of his job hunts.

Rodgers’ music felt so intimate and immediate that J.R. actually believed Rodgers was singing live through the radio speaker just to him. The family didn’t have a phonograph, so he didn’t understand that he had been listening to a record — something that could be played again and again. He was thrilled a few days later when he heard that magical Rodgers voice again on the radio. He raced around the house, trying to get everyone to sit with him and listen to this story about the lonely, dying man. So impressed was he with the singer that years later, J.R. would tell some of his schoolmates that he was named after Jimmie Rodgers. In truth, the initials had grown out of a stalemate between his parents over a name. Cash’s mother wanted to name him John after her father, John Rivers. His father said it should be Ray. So they just settled on the initials. (In some childhood writings Cash signed them simply JR, but J.R. was more common.) The youngster was also especially fond of the mostly sunny, sing-along styles of the Carter Family and Gene Autry. But the other radio tune from childhood that touched him the most was Vernon Dalhart’s “The Prisoner’s Song,” which was the first million-selling country recording. Like “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride,” Dalhart’s 1924 hit was a lonesome underdog tale. Both songs reflected the themes of heartache and strife that would play a prominent part in many of Cash’s own compositions. He later told me he found something uplifting in songs about hard times, speculating that maybe he got that feeling just because someone cared enough about troubled people to write songs about them.

Ray, always a serious-minded man, picked up early on his son’s fascination with music and tried to quash what he considered a frivolous pastime. Cash remembered his father often saying, “You ought to turn that stuff off.”

The first real crisis for Dyess residents came early in 1937. Torrential rain pelted much of the delta for days, swelling the Mississippi and other rivers in the region and flooding many of the surrounding farms and towns. It began to look like their dreams of a better life were going to be literally washed away. Adding to the trauma, the rain didn’t just keep coming, but sometimes gave way to clear skies, raising momentary hopes in the colony that the town would be spared. Then the rains returned harder than ever on January 21, and emergency workers began leading families to higher ground. By nightfall, some seven or eight hundred people were housed at the community center. But it wasn’t water from the Mississippi that threatened the residents of Dyess, as Cash often said later. It was the water of the less-well-known Tyronza River, which ran through the heart of the colony.

By noon the next day, the number of people at the community center had doubled. As conditions worsened — it was so cold that the rain froze as it hit the ground, making it difficult to operate trucks and tractors — residents who could stay with relatives elsewhere in the state began leaving Dyess by train. The water began rising during the night more rapidly than before, and by the morning of the twenty-third it was clear that a near-complete evacuation was necessary; there hadn’t been any electricity for three days.

Carrie and the younger Cash children were among the first to leave, returning by train to Kingsland to stay with relatives, not knowing if they would ever return. Ray Cash stayed in Dyess with Roy in hopes of safeguarding the house and to help in rescue work. Despite all the fear and upheaval, only two deaths were reported in the area — and the water soon started receding. By February 3 the roads were dry, and the word went out that it was safe to return. The Cashes were back home within two weeks — in plenty of time to celebrate J.R.’s fifth birthday on February 26.

The drama of the time was still vivid in J.R.’s mind nearly a quarter century later when he wrote a song about the flood, “Five Feet High and Rising,” that became one of his signature tunes. Looking back on the song, which appeared on a 1959 album titled Songs of Our Soil, Cash saw the struggle of the flood as another example of the power of faith and a community working together.

“My mama always taught me that good things come from adversity if we put our faith in the Lord,” he said, explaining the genesis of the song. “We couldn’t see much good in the flood waters when they were causing us to leave home. But when the water went down, we found that it had washed a load of rich black bottom dirt across our land. The following year we had the best crop we’d ever had.”

Thanks to the rich new layer of soil, on February 8, 1938, Ray was able to repay the government $2,183.60 to cover the cost of the land and the cash advances. The twenty acres of delta land were now his, and life in Dyess started to feel good. The whole family thanked God for His blessings three days a week at the First Baptist Church near the town center. That two-story building was as important in young J.R.’s life as the radio.

III

J.R. was taught to believe the literal message of heaven and hell, salvation and eternal damnation. He was also warned to be suspicious of other religions. Catholics, he was told, didn’t answer to God but to a mysterious tyrant in Rome, and the Jews killed Christ. Cash later rejected that backward thinking, showing enough tolerance for others’ beliefs that he married a Catholic, Vivian Liberto, and agreed to raise his daughters in that faith. When one of his daughters, Rosanne, married a Jew, record producer and guitarist John Leventhal, her father warmly welcomed him into the family. Racism was also rampant in Dyess, and it took a while before he was able to shake its venom.

J.R. joined the rest of his family at the church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night. Unlike other kids, who complained about having to go to church, he looked forward to the music, the sermons, and the sense of community. Just as music had warmed his home, church was an early comfort. By the time J.R. was nine, he had two more siblings — a sister, Joanne, born in 1938, and a brother, Tommy, born two years later. Nothing in all he heard about the Bible and God’s Commandments struck him as more important than honoring thy father and mother — and he prayed that he’d have a loving wife and family someday. He even pictured the kind of wife he wanted and the way he would raise his children. She would have to be as sweet and loyal as his mother, and he wanted to give his sons and daughters the same affection she showered on him. When he thought about the man he’d like to be, though, he thought of his older brother Jack, and never his father.

Everyone in the family looked upon Jack, who was named after heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey, as the golden child. Handsome, intelligent, outgoing and generous, Jack made up his mind early that he would serve the Lord by joining the ministry. Even other residents of Dyess spoke about his inspiring spirit and message, and how he had seemed, even at the age of eleven, to behave like a preacher. Jack was especially thoughtful to people in need, counseling adults who drank too much and comforting anyone facing illness or a death in the family. J.R. marveled at how his brother, who was just over two years older, could make adults three times his age feel better about themselves.

J.R. noticed that his friends’ older brothers discouraged their younger siblings from hanging out with them in town or at school, but Jack always welcomed J.R. Even Jack’s positive influence, however, couldn’t keep J.R. from developing a rebellious streak as he approached his teens, when he began to show what his father branded an “attitude.” He was moody, sometimes snapping back at his father and his teachers. He started smoking cigarettes at the age of ten — an ultimate act of rebellion at the time. He didn’t have money to buy any, so he would sneak some of his father’s tobacco and roll his own, or he would bum them from other kids.

“Looking back, that was the first sign of John’s addictive personality,” his sister Joanne says. “The other boys might smoke an occasional cigarette, but John smoked all the time — except when he was at home.” There’s no way he would have worried his mother by smoking in front of her.

Jack, who didn’t smoke, learned about J.R.’s habit, yet he wasn’t judgmental. That was one of the things that J.R. liked best about his brother. J.R. felt such a tight bond with Jack that he even delighted in going fishing with him, which surprised everyone else in the family because J.R. usually preferred fishing alone. He liked his solitude. As he did on the gravel road, the youngster would sometimes lie at the water’s edge, staring at the sky and singing his favorite songs — though most often silently to himself to avoid disturbing the fish.

On Saturday, May 13, 1944, J.R. was planning to go to his favorite fishing spot in one of the colony’s drainage ditches just off the two-and-a-half-mile route to the town center. Most of the time, fourteen-year-old Jack was too busy to spend the day fishing. If he wasn’t helping someone in the community, he was trying to raise money for his family — delivering the Memphis Press-Scimitar or doing odd jobs. On this day, too, he planned to earn money by making some fence posts at the high school agricultural building. He knew the family could use the extra $3.

Years later, Cash remembered an exchange in the family living room that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

“[Jack] said he felt like something was going to happen and my mother said, ‘Well, don’t go,’ ” Cash said. “Jack stared at the door when an expression of death came over his face.”

J.R. pleaded with Jack, “Come, go fishing.” But Jack felt a duty to the family.

As Jack headed toward town, J.R. went to the fishing hole, but his heart wasn’t in it. He felt restless. Instead of staying most of the day, he stood up after a couple of hours and headed home. That’s when he saw the mailman’s car coming toward him with his father in it. As soon as he saw his father’s ashen face, he knew something bad had happened.

Jack had been cutting the fence posts out of oak logs at the school workshop on a table saw without a guard on it, and the blade had ripped into the boy’s stomach. Stunned and bleeding, Jack tried to push his intestines back into his abdomen as he staggered from the shop building. He was spotted by a school official, who rushed him to the hospital. The teenager was alive but unconscious when J.R. and his father arrived. The family gathered around the golden child, their world cruelly and instantly shattered. Though the doctors held out little hope, Jack remained alive, but barely. Neighbors who had been helped over the years by Jack stopped by the hospital to join the family in prayer. The outpouring overwhelmed J.R. All these people loved his brother as much as he did. It taught him a lot about compassion, he said later. He hoped someday that people would care for him like they cared about Jack.

When the boy’s condition worsened on Wednesday, a special service was held at the Baptist church, drawing people from all over Dyess. Learning the next morning that Jack’s condition had improved dramatically, Ray and Carrie Cash believed it was a miracle. But the euphoria was short-lived. The family was told on Friday morning that the end was imminent, and they crowded into the hospital room.

“[Jack] started to groan and asked Mama to hold his hand,” Cash said, remembering the farewell scene late in life. He said his brother closed his eyes and told Carrie he was at a river. “One way goes to the bad place; the other way goes to the light. I’m going to the light.” Then he said, “Can you hear the angels singing? Look at this city, this beautiful city, the gold and all the jewels, the angels. Listen, Mama, can you hear them?”

He died Saturday morning.

Pretty much the whole town came to the funeral on Sunday and joined the family in singing favorite hymns. Jack was buried in a cemetery in nearby Wilson; the words on the gravestone read “Meet Me in Heaven.” Years later, Cash would use the phrase in a song. At the height of his stardom in 1970, Cash would also dedicate his songbook, Songs of Johnny Cash, to his brother.

We lost you one sad day in May 1944.
Though the songs that we sang
Are gone from the cotton fields
I can hear the sound of your voice
As they are sung far and wide

In loving memory
Your brother, J.R.

Still reeling, the Cash family was back in the fields on Monday picking cotton. The crops wouldn’t wait. The loss of her son, however, was too much for Carrie.

“I watched as my mother fell to her knees and let her head drop onto her chest,” Cash recalled in his 1997 autobiography. “My poor daddy came up to her and took her arm, but she brushed him away. ‘I’ll get up when God pushes me up!’”

Finally, slowly and painfully, she got back to her feet and resumed picking cotton. She still had a husband to care for and children to raise.

Through the week, J.R. kept thinking about his brother’s words — about a crossroads between the lightness and the dark. “I made my choice after his death which way I was going to go,” Cash decades later told a friend, producer-director James Keach. “I answered a call to come down the aisle [in church] and shook the preacher’s hand and I accepted Jesus Christ as savior that next Sunday.

“[Jack's] been with me all these years, and sometimes when I [was] so messed up, in such bad trouble, in jail somewhere, I would say, ‘I know you’re really ashamed of me.’ I’m still talking to him. A lot of things might have been different if it weren’t for him. He knew about the entertainment world. He knew about the trash that went on. My father would always talk about the evil stage, the evil show business. But Jack didn’t. He encouraged me.”

J.R. tried to avoid his father’s eyes in the months after Jack’s death because he didn’t want to see the disappointment and the blame. His father had told J.R. the accident would never have happened if he had kept his brother from going to the school shop that day, but really, what could he have done?

During this time, J.R. became increasingly distant, showing little interest in school or hanging out with his pals. More than ever, he treasured his time alone, whether it was at the fishing pond or the school library. Even when he was around friends, they’d often notice a lonely, melancholy quality about him. Rosanne, his daughter, believes a part of that sense of sadness never left her father. “Dad was wounded so profoundly by Jack’s death, and by his father’s reaction — the blame and recrimination and bitterness,” she says. “If someone survives that kind of damage, either great evil or great art can come out of it. And my dad had the seed of great art in him.”

It was around this time that J.R. saw a movie that left a lasting impression on him. For most kids, Frankenstein, the 1931 film about a mad scientist who creates a monster by putting a criminal’s brain into his man-made being, was simply a scary horror story. But Cash felt sorry for the monster, who was killed by a mob that thought he’d murdered a young girl, when in fact the monster had tried to befriend her. Explaining his sympathy for the monster, Cash said he was someone “made up of bad parts but was trying to do good.”

James Mangold, who directed Walk the Line, the 2005 film about the relationship between Cash and June Carter in the 1960s, talked to Cash about Frankenstein and came away from the conversation with the belief that Cash identified so strongly with the movie because he worried, in the aftermath of Jack’s death and his father’s reaction, that he, too, might have bad parts. “He certainly felt terribly misunderstood by his father.”

In his increasing loneliness and grief, J.R. started writing down his thoughts, sometimes in the form of a poem, a short story or even a song. He found he loved to express himself in words. “I’d never known death either in the family or among friends, and suddenly I realized that I wasn’t immortal — that I too could die someday,” he said. The writings reflected a darkness that would reappear in Cash’s music throughout the years.

J.R. also tried to lose himself in books, showing a particular fondness for American history and the Old West. The stories and accounts stimulated his increasingly active mind, and he often took them with him to the fishing hole. He also developed a great appetite for poetry that never left him.

Like many kids, he loved the work of Edgar Allan Poe as he got older, but he responded most to poets who, like his beloved gospel music, offered inspiring messages. He especially prized one poem — Joaquin Miller’s “Columbus.” His face would still light up years later when he described the story of Columbus crossing the ocean and facing a series of seemingly impossible hurdles, only to respond each time with the words “Sail on!”

“Some people might think that’s corny stuff … how Columbus says, ‘Sail on,’ ” Cash acknowledged late in life. “But it always thrilled me to death. I love that stuff.”

Through all this, however, nothing comforted him more than those solitary late-night walks on the gravel road, though he was now singing hymns along with Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb songs.

It was on one of those walks that J.R. had a revelation that caused him to race home to share it with his mother. For months he had been trying to figure out how to keep Jack’s spirit alive and, perhaps, gain some smidgen of affection from his father. He even thought briefly about the ministry, but he couldn’t convince himself, even at age twelve, that it was the right choice. The breakthrough came as he walked down the road singing gospel tunes. That was it. He could spread Jack’s message through music; he would be a gospel singer.

Joanne Cash remembers her brother running into the house to tell his mother the news. Carrie smiled and hugged her son. When she told Ray about the boy’s latest dream, he scoffed. The reaction hurt J.R., but the youngster was used to being disappointed by his father.

J.R.’s demeanor differed greatly from that of his more outgoing brothers and sisters, and his parents interpreted it in opposing ways. J.R.’s father saw the boy’s daydreaming and love of music as lazy and unfocused. Ray Cash later explained, “I wanted him to start preparing for the day when he’d be on his own and have to take care of his family.” Ray even complained about J.R.’s facial expression or lack of it. Whereas he’d seen enthusiasm and warmth in Jack’s face, Ray found it hard to tell what his younger son was thinking — or if the boy was even listening to him — because his eyes didn’t reveal any emotion. Carrie Cash thought her son’s daydreaming and quiet demeanor were signs that he was thoughtful and sensitive. “He hardly ever said anything,” she said years later. “But he listened. He was drinking it all in.”

The boy tried hard to be loyal to his father; it was the Commandment that meant the most to him, and he did appreciate the way his father worked tirelessly to provide for the family. Yet, he said later, there was no getting around it: Ray Cash could be cruel, especially when he drank too much. Many of J.R.’s relatives and schoolboy chums would challenge that description of Ray. They said old man Cash was simply gruff, like most hardworking men in Depression-ravaged rural America. But J.R.’s list of complaints against his father went further than not hearing “I love you” regularly.

J.R. was forever wounded when he came home from grade school and found his dog lying dead in the woods near the house. To J.R.’s horror, he learned that his father had shot the animal after it broke into the chicken coop and killed a half-dozen chickens. Most of their neighbors would have done the same thing, but other farmers would have found a more humane way to tell their youngsters, perhaps simply saying the animal had run away. J.R. sensed that his father almost felt glee in telling him about the shooting.

Years later, Ray Cash said he wished he had handled the incident differently. “I wouldn’t have killed that dog if I had thought about it,” he told Christopher S. Wren for a biography, The Life of Johnny Cash: Winners Got Scars Too, in the early 1970s. “I dragged the dog back into the woods. I hated the killing, but it was done. J.R. found the dog and he came and asked me why I shot him. I told him. He never said anything about it to this day.”

Though the elder Cash never said anything on the record about his thoughts regarding J.R. and Jack, there remained a lingering resentment over the tragedy.

“Grandpa always kind of blamed Dad for Jack’s death,” says Cash’s daughter Kathy. “And Dad had this real sad guilt thing about him his whole life. You could just see it in his eyes. You can look at almost any picture and see this dark sadness thing going on. Dad even told me … that one time when his daddy had been drinking, he said something like, ‘Too bad it wasn’t you instead of Jack.’ I said, ‘Oh, my God, Dad. What a horrible thing to say.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I think about that every time I see him.’ ”

IV

J.R. was walking down a colony road one day more than a year after Jack’s death when he was surprised to hear music coming from one of the wooden houses. He didn’t know at first if the voice and guitar strumming were from a record or someone inside. Curious, he walked up to the door, where he saw a boy about his age singing and playing an old Ernest Tubb hit called “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin.”

The boy, Jesse Barnhill, invited J.R. inside; he was delighted someone else was interested in music. J.R. had seen the teenager around school, but he had never spent any time with him. Jesse suffered from polio, which made walking difficult and clumsy. His paralyzed right arm was only half as long as his left, and his right hand was withered. J.R. marveled that the boy could play the guitar.

Jesse tried to teach J.R. how to play, but J.R. didn’t catch on. Even so, J.R. longed for one of the guitars he saw in the Sears Roebuck catalog, especially the Gene Autry model, thinking it would be fun to hold while he was singing. But the family couldn’t afford it, so he mostly just sang along while Jesse copied the guitar parts from the records.

Not only did J.R. start spending a lot of time with Jesse, but also he helped his friend overcome his hesitancy and brave the outside world — ignoring the kids who made fun of him. With J.R. leading the way, they’d go to the town center, usually to see a movie or listen to the jukebox in the tiny café. They’d often be joined by Harry Clanton, who was in J.R.’s class. J.R. liked Harry because he had a wonderful sense of humor, and J.R. loved a good joke. Together, J.R. and Harry became known as cutups and pranksters in class — going to elaborate means to entertain the other students with such antics as leaving a dead squirrel in the teacher’s desk drawer or causing havoc in the library by pulling out scores of books and putting them back in the wrong places.

When J.R. was feeling especially aggressive, the pranks would take on a harder edge. He loved, for instance, to break bottles he’d find stacked up behind stores in town or sneak into a field at night and set fire to a farmer’s haystack. In the Dyess High School annual at the end of his junior year, Cash was called “historian” for his interest in the subject, while Clanton, who was known throughout the school as the mastermind behind all the pranks, was simply “The Schemer.”

After his weekly trip to the movies, Cash never had enough money to play the jukebox, but he did a good job of talking others into pushing the button next to the name of Eddy Arnold, who had become a new favorite. Arnold was the hottest thing in country music in the mid-1940s, thanks to such records as “I’ll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms).” Unlike the rawer honkytonk style that J.R. usually preferred, Arnold sang with a crooning, pop-flavored approach that made him sort of the Bing Crosby of country.

One day in the summer of 1947, J.R. heard on the radio that the cast of one of his favorite radio shows, the High Noon Roundup, was coming to Dyess for a concert. The whole Cash family listened to the show, which was broadcast live over Memphis station WMPS, during their lunch breaks from the fields. J.R. arrived at the school for the concert two hours early with Jesse and Harry. He puffed anxiously on a cigarette, hoping to figure out a way to meet the Louvin Brothers, who were the stars of the weekday program.

J.R. recognized Charlie Louvin when he got out of a black Cadillac, and the teenager’s knees shook as Louvin walked toward him. All Louvin wanted was directions to the restroom, but J.R. took advantage of the request to escort the radio star there. He wanted to ask Louvin how he could get into the music business, but he didn’t have the nerve. Just walking alongside Louvin, however, made the whole idea of being a professional singer seem more possible.

After the show, J.R. and his friends watched as the musicians put their equipment into their car and headed back to Memphis. J.R. would have given anything to be in the car with them. When Louvin waved at him as they pulled away, it was his biggest thrill since Eleanor Roosevelt shook his hand. In the weeks after the concert, J.R. started thinking of country singers and the Roosevelts in the same light. They both brought people together and made them feel good, and people cheered them. He assumed, of course, they must all be Baptists.

V

As J.R. moved through high school, he began to feel increasingly anxious about his future. For all the time he had spent thinking about being on the radio, he realized he didn’t have any idea how to make that happen. There was no station in Dyess where he might try to persuade someone to give a local boy the chance to show what he could do. J.R. still talked to his family and a few friends about being on the radio someday, but privately he was starting to worry.

Truth be known, Ray wasn’t the only one in the Cash family who had doubts about J.R.’s musical dreams. Carrie wanted to support her son, but his voice was high-pitched, not at all husky and deeprooted like the singers on the radio. Besides, he was shy. How could he be a singer if he couldn’t stand before an audience? Carrie had tried to help J.R. with his insecurity by arranging for him to sing in front of the church congregation. Cash later called it the “most horrible experience of my life.” It might have been all right in church if his mother had been onstage with him, but he found himself standing next to the preacher and a stranger on piano. He felt as if he “totally bombed,” but his mother didn’t give up; she kept pushing him to sing before the congregation, and every time J.R. felt embarrassed. It wasn’t the singing — it was the people watching him.

That wall of shyness began to crack one afternoon in the summer of 1947. Carrie and Joanne were doing the dishes in the kitchen when they heard a voice through the open window singing a new gospel song that had been sweeping the country, “Everybody’s Gonna Have a Wonderful Time Up There.”

Carrie looked out the window and saw fifteen-year-old J.R. pumping water into a bucket.

“Is that you singing, J.R.?”

He spun around and smiled, “Yes, Mama. My voice has gotten a little lower.”

Carrie called her son into the kitchen and she cried as she hugged him.

“You’ve got a gift, J.R. You are going to sing,” she told him. “God’s got his hand on you. You’re going to carry the message of Jesus Christ.”

Carrie was so caught up in J.R.’s “gift” that she vowed to do what she could to nurture him. She wanted J.R. to take singing lessons, but he resisted for almost two years. Finally, Carrie insisted. She was making $5 to $6 a week using the family’s new washing machine to launder the clothes of some of the schoolteachers. She set aside $3 for once-a-week lessons with a young teacher in Lepanto, a larger town eight miles away. J.R. went along grudgingly each week to see LaVanda Mae Fielder. It might have been OK if she had let him sing songs he knew, but he had to sing songs the teacher thought were good vocal exercises, such as the Irish ballad “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.”

After just three lessons, Fielder was frustrated by the teenager’s lack of progress. To make him more comfortable, she changed her strategy. She asked him to pick a song. He thought immediately of Hank Williams, whose “Lovesick Blues” was all over the radio in the early months of 1949. The chance to sing one of his favorite new songs freed J.R., and his voice was so engaging, the teacher closed the lid on her piano and told him the lessons were over. He shouldn’t ever let anyone change his style, “ever,” she repeated forcefully.

These words gave J.R. enough confidence finally to stand in front of the church congregation without quivering. He started becoming more active at school, too, widening his group of friends and even showing his poems and other writings to some of his classmates. He gained such a good reputation as a writer that several of his friends paid him — usually about fifty cents — to write their homework poems or essays. “He was good with words,” recalls J. E. Huff. “He was smarter than we were. That’s for sure.” Classmate A. J. Henson liked a poem that J.R. wrote for him so much that he could still recite it more than five decades later:

The top hand mounted his trusty steed
And rode across the plain.
He said, “I’ll ride until setting sun
Unless I lose my rein.”
The top hand gave a jerk
And Bob drew up the slack.
He rode his trail until setting sun
Then rode a freight train back.

A.J. got an A on the assignment.

Still, J.R. couldn’t shake the pressure of needing to find a job after high school. All the years his father told him he was foolish to waste his energy on music had left an impression.

VI

As their senior year approached, J.R. and his friends spent many an evening trying to figure out how to escape the toilsome life their parents led. “The only thing we knew for sure was we weren’t going to be farmers,” Huff says. The government program in Dyess had given people like Ray Cash the chance to survive, but never to flourish. The land was worked so hard that it had already lost what richness it had had, making it almost impossible for families to break even. Many of the long-timers left the delta settlement for Memphis, just fifty miles away, or other parts of the country where they could find better pay and easier work. Ray Cash began taking odd jobs in nearby towns to supplement his income.

With his pals, J.R. weighed the merits of the main career paths that young men from poor families in the South often chose in the 1940s: head north to the auto plants in Michigan or join the military. There was also a third option — head to California in hopes of claiming agriculture jobs — but no one in Dyess wanted anything further to do with harvesting crops. Henson was the first of the three to make the break. While J.R. and J.E. returned to school, A.J. joined the Army.

On the outside, things were good at school during J.R.’s last year, though his grades, as usual, were only a little above average in most classes, even his favorites, English and history. He was elected class vice president, appeared in school plays, and was chosen to sing at the commencement exercises — not a country song, but “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes,” an expression of faith with lyrics from a seventeenth-century poem by Ben Jonson. In the yearbook, the editors made a special mention of him: “It was in this year that one of our number showed so much talent on the stage, both as an actor and with his voice, that we think he should be publically recognized: this boy was J.R. Cash.”

But the good feelings of his final school year didn’t last long. Deep inside, J.R. couldn’t shake the fact that he had no idea how to break into the music business. He thought about heading to Nashville, the home of country music, but he knew he didn’t have the courage to do it, and that left him despondent. By graduation day, even the joys of his solitary walks had faded.

Desperate to demonstrate his independence from his father, J.R. heard there were some jobs available in west Arkansas picking strawberries, and, despite all his years of dreading picking cotton, he headed for the town of Bald Knob. The trip proved a bust; the strawberry crop was too small for him to make any money, so he headed home after three days. Not knowing what to do next, he happened to bump into Frank McKinney, a barber in Dyess. McKinney was thinking about taking the bus to Michigan to try to find a job in the auto industry, and he invited J.R. to go along. J.R. agreed so quickly that he spent much of the bus ride wondering if he was making a mistake.

In Michigan, J.R. got a job the first day as a punch press operator at the Fisher body plant in Pontiac. He walked a mile and a half to work each morning, but this wasn’t like the gravel road in Dyess. He couldn’t sing on the city streets, and he didn’t have enough spirit left to daydream. He felt trapped. The only thing to keep him company was his chain-smoking. From the first day, he found the work tedious and repetitious — far worse than picking cotton back home, because he wasn’t surrounded by the love of his family and community. For the first time, he also felt the sting of being branded an outsider, someone who was considered inferior — and this experience led him to begin to question some of the racist attitudes prevalent in Dyess.

While J.R. was working on a Pontiac one day, the fender slipped and cut his arm. When he went to the medical office, a doctor looked at his file card and smirked when he saw the words “Dyess, Ark.” “All you Southern hicks are always just looking for a way to get off work,” he said. J.R. tried to explain that it was an accident, but the doctor was unbending. Cash recalled the doctor’s response: “How long you gonna work here? You gonna get yourself a good paycheck or two and then split like they all do?”

A few days later, Cash came down with stomach flu, but he wouldn’t go back to the doctor; he didn’t want any further abuse. The landlady at his boardinghouse gave him a big glass of wine and told him to get some sleep — he’d feel better in the morning. He did feel better the next day, but he decided he was going home. Between the monotony of the work and the anti-Southern bias, after a couple of weeks he’d had enough of the car factory. He hitchhiked back to Dyess.

His mother was thrilled to see her son, but she was also alarmed by how skinny J.R. was. He had always been slender, which is why he hadn’t joined the sports teams at school with most of his pals. But he was now down to 140 pounds, low for a six-foot teenager. Carrie did her best to stuff him with home cooking around the clock.

Despite his craving for independence, J.R. was so desperate to get a job that he accepted his father’s offer to try to get him taken on at the oleomargarine plant near Dyess, where Ray was working. Predictably, J.R. hated the regimentation and he quit after a few days. Ray just shook his head once again. J.R. wondered if his father wasn’t right after all. Maybe he wouldn’t amount to anything. Maybe he was lazy and unfocused.

With nowhere else to turn, he decided to follow his father’s lead one last time and do what Ray had done three decades earlier. He would join the military. J.R. always enjoyed hearing his father talk about his adventures in World War I and about such appealing perks as going to Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower. Besides, this was one way to finally please Ray. He first thought of joining the Army, like the elder Cash, but the Air Force seemed more glamorous and probably safer in case all the talk about war in Korea proved true.

On July 7, 1950, J.R. drove the family’s 1945 Ford to Blytheville and enlisted in the Air Force. Because regulations required a first name rather than initials, J.R. wrote down John, though no one had ever called him that. When asked for a middle name, he wrote simply R. He was just six weeks past high school and, after many false starts, he was finally saying good-bye to Dyess.

In his mind, however, J.R. would return to his hometown frequently — not just the house on Road 3 and his family, but also the wider community and all that it had meant to him. He’d sometimes imagine himself walking out of the movie theater in the town center and turning to the right, where he could see the porch of the administration building where Eleanor Roosevelt had stood. He would turn left, walk one block down Main Street, and see the old Baptist church, head another block down Main and picture the school library and the assembly hall where he’d seen the Louvins. A little farther along Main and J.R. could imagine the spot on the riverbank where he often fished and another spot on the river where he was baptized. It was a short stretch of land, just 250 yards, but he knew that the lesson of Dyess was one of inspiration and hope.

As J.R. said good-bye to his family at the station in Memphis and boarded the train for Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, the initial excitement of joining the service quickly gave way to nervousness. He found himself staring out the window, avoiding conversation with the other enlistees, some of whom seemed to relish the adventures ahead. One of his worries when he’d signed up had been getting sent into battle in Korea. He was now fretting over another kind of survival.

As with the trip to Michigan, he soon began asking himself if he hadn’t made a mistake. If anything, the failure of the Pontiac experience made him even more apprehensive. Would this trip, too, end in disaster? Was he smart enough to compete with the boys from the big city? Would the recruits from the North treat him with contempt like the doctor in Pontiac?

What about his spiritual values? He wasn’t used to being around alcohol, and he had never had a serious relationship with a girl. Would he be able to stay on the right path, or would he let Jack and his mother down? Could he actually flunk out? Would the Air Force send him home if he didn’t measure up?

The thought of that possible humiliation numbed him. He couldn’t shake his fear of what lay ahead. J.R. finally just laid his head against the seat and hoped, as he often did in moments of stress, to find that comfort in the escape of sleep.

Johnny Cash: The Life. Reprinted by permission. Copyright © 2013 by Robert Hilburn. Published by Little, Brown and Company, Hatchette Book Group.