Even in death, Johnny Cash remains a larger-than-life figure. Thanks to the blockbuster film Walk the Line and a recording catalog that stretches across six decades, his dramatic story still resonates with every generation.
The legendary figure's only son, John Carter Cash, knows that narrative well. Yet in his own memoir, House of Cash: The Legacies of My Father, Johnny Cash, the 45-year-old shows a more personal side of his dad. There are tales of boating trips and Bible trivia contests and even a handwritten recipe for homemade veggie burgers.
It's immediately clear upon meeting him that Cash has inherited his parents' welcoming spirit. Once you're comfortably seated at a kitchen table inside the Cash Cabin recording studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee, he's happy to pour a cup of coffee (black, naturally) and talk about the family legacy one on one.
"This was just a getaway," he says. "This was just a place in the woods to go do music. I would sit here with Dad and we'd spend the night. There are beds upstairs. He would fry eggs and make chili. He had his defining recipes. He cooked for me quite a bit because we'd spend time alone together, whether fishing or hunting or just getting away."
Published in hardcover in 2012, House of Cash took John Carter Cash five years to write. That's largely due to the sheer volume of notebooks stashed in the family's office vault after his mother, June Carter Cash, and his father both died in 2003. Their son remembers finding these documents "in total chaos." But you'd hardly guess it from the tidy paperback edition of House of Cash released last month.
For the last 12 years, the younger Cash has been the caretaker of his parents' legacy, from curating CD compilations to loaning memorabilia to museums. It's undoubtedly a daunting task, yet he takes pride in his work. And he's always careful to honor the family name. That means no alcohol or tobacco endorsements, which his father always declined in his lifetime.
"That's one thing that's been my creed with Dad — try to run it as if he were still sitting in the room," he says.
The Cash Cabin is decorated with engaging heirlooms, including a hand-drawn poster of how to play "I Walk the Line" on guitar, given to John Carter Cash as a child by his father. Getting up from the table, he points out the autographs scrawled on the fireplace mantle, next to a "JC" branded into the wood. That black etching coincides with the 1979 construction of the cabin.
Later he explains that the framed photos of a turtle and crab were taken by his father in Jamaica. Large black-and-white photos of Johnny and June hang from nearly every wall.
"You find these treasures in spirit, first of all," he says. "To me, those are the greatest treasures — the personal letters between my parents. The things that show spiritual marks in his life, like when he began to have a relationship with my mother's father, Ezra. His spirit modified and became a lot stronger. And then the letters to me, of course. But there was so much there and it begged to be preserved; it begged to be put [together] in the right away."
The guiding principle in writing the book, he says, was to only share what the elder Cash would have liked his fans to know. There are references to the singer's drug addiction and rehabilitation in the Eighties, but also insight to Johnny Cash's tender relationship with his father, Ray. It's a different portrait than the turbulent one portrayed in the 2005 film Walk the Line.
"My father was always respectful to my grandfather. I really wanted that to be known because I never saw him disrespect my grandfather, and I never saw them have a cross word. And he went to see him every other day at least, if not every day," Cash says. "That was the legacy they had together. That's what they carried on. You know, Walk the Line had to have some sort of antagonist, but Ray really stopped being that negative, dark spirit, probably right after Jack died. And that was a hell of a long time ago."
Indeed. Jack, who was Cash's oldest brother, was killed in a sawmill accident in 1944. John Carter Cash's youngest son, who never met his famous grandparents, is named Jack Ezra.
Looking at his father through modern eyes, Cash observes, "There's something magical that happens to every three-year-old that hears 'Ring of Fire.' That's usually where it starts for most people. They immediately want to put on a black shirt, grab a guitar and sing 'Ring of Fire.' It's happening all over the world right now and it has since the Sixties."
In conversation and in the memoir, Cash is able to convey the lighter side of the Man in Black. For example, he recalls the overwhelming sadness that he and his sisters felt upon seeing the bleak "Hurt" music video for the first time. But the artist's own reaction?
"We were all holding our breath. And Dad was like, 'It's going to be a hit!'" With a loud, hearty laugh, Cash enthusiastically pounds the table the same way his excitable father did. "He's like, 'Man, this is great!'"
Just three months after the video's release, June Carter Cash passed away. Four months later, her husband of 35 years followed. Even now, their son says everybody asks if his father died from a broken heart. But that notion is quickly dismissed.
"It's a real simple thing to think," he says. "I think Dad died with a broken heart but I don't think it killed him. I think he would still be making music today if his body hadn't given up."