Fans and associates of the late Johnny Cash gathered at the Ruby event venue in Nashville Thursday evening (Sept. 10) to preview Johnny Cash: American Rebel.
The new documentary, which features recent commentaries from Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow and Eric Church, among others, will premiere on CMT at 9 p.m. ET Saturday (Sept. 12), the 12th anniversary of Cash’s death.
Others interviewed for the project include Kris Kristofferson, John Mellencamp, Carlene Carter, Kid Rock, Rodney Crowell, W. S. “Fluke” Holland (Cash’s drummer), producer Rick Rubin and Cash biographer Michael Streissguth.
Following the preview, USA Today music critic Brian Mansfield led a discussion of the documentary with John Carter Cash, Cash’s son, and Lou Robin, Cash’s long-time manager.
As Haggard observes in the documentary, Cash had an appeal that was “deeper” than mere charisma. “You could put him in a room full of presidents,” he marvels, “and he would have stood out. Elvis didn’t even have what Cash had.”
Clive Davis, who headed Columbia Records during Cash’s glory days at the label, speaks reverently of the singer’s “gravitas.”
And with that word, Davis basically nailed it. Even from the start, as the film demonstrates, there was something in Cash’s rumbling voice, wide stance and broad-shouldered bearing that seemed to say, “Important pronouncement to follow.”
Much of the documentary focuses on Cash’s social consciousness — his sympathy for the poor, American Indians, prisoners and drug addicts—in both his songs and actions.
While nothing in the film stretches the outline of what’s generally known about Cash and his career, it still sparkles with vivid moments of insight.
Haggard offers a lyrical appreciation of the amphetamines that kept Cash and his fellow road warriors alert and working, even as the drug lured them into addiction.
“He loved us so much,” Rosanne Cash reflects of Cash, the family man, “but he was a touring musician. And then he was a touring musician who had a drug problem — several of them. You fill in the blanks.”
A number of scenes show Cash’s whimsical side — as when he mimics a gum-chewing prison guard at San Quentin or, decades later, valiantly attempts to hurl a chair high up into the limbs of a tree.
The most heart-tugging segments trace the despair Cash felt after Columbia declined to renew his contract and his ticket-buying audiences began to dwindle.
After a show in Indiana, Mellencamp says Cash told him he was pretty much resigned to retreating to Branson, the Missouri resort city that had become the last-stand for several stars of yesterday.
Cash confesses in the documentary that during the ‘70s and ‘80s, “the magic of the music was gone, and I was just doing it because I do it.”
Then comes Cash’s triumphant rebirth as a recording and performing artist under the direction of producer Rick Rubin, culminating with his devastatingly sad music video rendition of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.”
The documentary ends with scenes of Cash walking on a windy beach after his beloved wife, June Carter Cash has died and he has resigned himself to his own imminent departure.
An off-camera interviewer asks him if he has any regrets. “God forgave me,” Cash replies. “I figure I’d better do it, too.”
“At the end of his life, he was more in love with my mother than ever,” said John Carter Cash during the post-film discussion.
“John was a very honest person,” Robin recalled. “You could discuss anything with him.”
Robin also noted that even during Cash’s fallow period, he was always able to draw large crowds throughout Europe.
“My dad never lost his creativity and drive,” said the younger Cash. “If you look at that [down] period, the genius was still there.”
Cash also spoke of his father’s sense of humor. “He was a fun-loving, laughing individual.” Even when he saw the completed video of “Hurt” and everyone else was in tears, John Carter said a dry-eyed Cash quipped, “It’s gonna be a hit.”
And it was.