On a sunlit afternoon, Johnny Cash sits in a large, comfortable chair in the Hendersonville, Tennessee, house he's shared with his wife, June Carter Cash, for more than thirty years. He's reflecting on his life. In 1997, he announced that he was struggling with a nervous-system disorder, and his public manifestations since then have been rare. But this afternoon, he is expansive, good-humored and, above all, indomitable as he talks about the album he is recording, his plans and his past.
"This room right here that you're in, this is the room I moved into when I decided to quit drugs in 1968," Cash says as he looks around the oval-shaped, dark-wooded den. "They didn't have treatment centers the way they do now, so this is the room that I climbed the walls in for thirty days.
"The doctor came to see me every day at 5 P.M.," he continues. "The first few days I was still rollin' stones. Amphetamine was my drug of choice, and I had pills hidden all over this room." He looks over to the many doors that line the wall opposite the row of windows overlooking Old Hickory Lake. He pauses, then laughs to himself. "I was serious about quitting – but not quite," he says, wryly. "About the third or fourth day, the doctor looked me in the eye and asked, 'How you doin'?' I said, 'Great!' And he said, 'Bullshit. I know you're not doing great. When are you going to get rid of them?' So I went and got them out of the closet and wherever else I had them hid, and we flushed them. Then I really started the program that he laid out for me. I came out of here feeling like a million dollars."
Being around Johnny Cash is a daunting experience. He is tall, and, though the illness he now lives with has broadened him around the middle and grayed that sleek mane of black hair, he remains a formidable physical presence. As he talks, he will occasionally put his hands over his eyes and rub them, as if he is in pain. Those eyes look as though they have seen everything, have absorbed all the lessons those experiences had to offer and now are hungry for more. His intelligence is keen, and his innate dignity informs every move he makes and every word he speaks. It is heartbreaking to watch him, a giant, struggle with his burden. The knowledge that Cash has walked both sides of the line separating sin and salvation only thickens the air of integrity that always surrounds him.
Right now, in the bright sunshine outside, a celebration is under way on the sprawling grounds of the Cash estate, just north of Nashville. Several hundred people – including such Nashville luminaries as George Jones, Tom T. Hall and Skeeter Davis – have gathered to celebrate the release of June Carter Cash's Press On, a moving collection of songs that honors her heritage as a daughter of the Carter Family, the founding family of country music. But while the festivities go on, guests are quietly led back to the house for private audiences with Johnny. He's friendly to everyone, but he's pacing himself. He plans to perform a song with June in an hour or two, and he needs to conserve his energy.
In October 1997 Cash grew dizzy and nearly fell after bending down to retrieve a guitar pick during a performance in Flint, Michigan. He then told the audience that he had Parkinson's disease. Shortly afterward, he was diagnosed with Shy-Drager Syndrome, a progressive, Parkinson's-like illness for which there is currently no cure. The prognosis is terrifying: chronic degeneration over a period of years, then death. Cash canceled the remainder of that '97 tour. He has subsequently been hospitalized a number of times for pneumonia, and he has suffered other side effects of the disease and its rigorous treatment. Cash has fought his illness with characteristic will – so much so that there is now some question about whether the diagnosis of Shy-Drager is correct. While he suffers many bad days – and neither his doctors nor anyone in the Cash camp will publicly venture a more optimistic read on his health – Cash has fared far better than anyone had a right to believe he would.
It's hardly surprising, under such circumstances, that Cash's mind would turn to an earlier physical struggle – his tormented battle with drug addiction, a battle that, despite some notable backsliding, he eventually won. He does not like discussing his sickness. "It's all right," he assured the Michigan crowd after revealing his illness. "I refuse to give it some ground in my life." In the spring of 1999 he told USA Today, "I've made it a point to forget the name of the disease and not to give it any space in my life, because I just can't do it. I can't think that negatively. I can't believe I'm going to be incapacitated. I won't believe that." After that article appeared, Cash was so upset about its detailed discussion of his illness that he canceled some upcoming interviews.
Back in Hendersonville, Cash eventually leaves the house and, dressed in black tails and a black shirt, greets the family members, friends and guests who, to a person, are thrilled to see him. He takes the stage set up in the yard and affectionately introduces June. He looks flushed, and he moves with great deliberateness, spending his store of energy carefully, anticipating the exhaustion to come. Johnny joins June and her band – which includes their son John Carter Cash on acoustic guitar – to duet with June on "The Far Side Banks of Jordan," a tune that Cash first played for his wife twenty-five years before, telling her, "This is going to be our song." It's the sort of folk spiritual he used to sing with his family on their front porch in Dyess, Arkansas, decades ago, the kind of song that first sparked his love for music. He begins the song, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. "I believe my steps are growing wearier each day," he sings. "Got another journey on my mind/The lures of this old world/Have ceased to make me want to stay/And my one regret is leaving you behind."
Johnny and June harmonize on the chorus: "I'll be waiting on the far side banks of Jordan/I'll be sitting, drawing pictures in the sand/And when I see you coming/I will rise up with a shout/And come running through the shallow water/Reaching for your hand."
Despite, or perhaps because of his illness, interest in Johnny Cash's music has reached a fever pitch. In May, Columbia/American/Legacy released an extraordinary three-CD box set of his work. Titled Love God and Murder, it is a thematically organized collection that explores the three grand subjects of Cash's forty-six-year career. Cash has also just released a stunning new album, American III: Solitary Man, his third collaboration with producer Rick Rubin. It is a brave, unflinching confrontation with his own mortality, the nearly inconceivable notion of leaving behind all the joys and sorrows that constitute a life. It's hard to imagine anyone else making an album remotely like it.
Like so many of the titanic heroes of rock & roll, Johnny Cash is a glorious mess of contradictions. The wild drugs and debauchery of Saturday night – and in Cash's case, pretty much every other night, too – have fought vigorously for his soul against the powerful Christian conviction of Sunday morning. Cash is the Man in Black, the noble outlaw, a fearsome figure whose Mount Rushmore face, piercing dark eyes and uproarious excesses helped make him one of the more combustible ingredients in the critical mass that exploded in Memphis in the mid-Fifties. In early songs like "I Walk the Line" and "Big River," he articulated a fierce vision of what country music – and its bastard child, rock & roll – could be. He hammered out a sound that is bare to the bone, without a single wasted note.
"I was a Johnny Cash freak," says Keith Richards, who first heard Cash's music as a teenager in England. "Luther Perkins, his guitar player, was amazing. Johnny's singing was, too. They taught me about the importance of silence in music – that you don't have to play all over the song. You just play what's necessary. If it's done wrong, it can be painfully monotonous. But when it's done right, it has this incredibly powerful focus and intensity, and that's what those early Cash songs were like.
"As far as early rock & roll goes," Richards continues, "if someone came up to me and for some reason they could only get a collection of one person's music, I'd say, 'Chuck Berry is important, but, man, you've got to get the Cash!' "
While he was making that groundbreaking music, Cash was also inventing what would soon become the myth of Johnny Cash. It is a larger-than-life persona that has had at least as much impact and influence as the music itself. "I was back-stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville when I met him in 1965," says Kris Kristofferson, whose career Cash helped to launch. "It was back in his dangerous days, and it was electric. He was skinny as a snake, and you just never knew what he was going to do. He looked like he might explode at any minute. He was a bad boy, he stood up for the underdog, he was exciting and unpredictable, and he had an energy onstage that was unlike anybody else.
"I shook hands with him," Kristofferson continues, "and that was probably what brought me back to Nashville to be a songwriter. He was everything I thought an artist ought to be."
Folk singer Eric Andersen remembers being introduced to Cash by Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. Dylan greatly admired Cash, and Cash, breaking ranks with Nashville orthodoxy, was an early, enthusiastic supporter of Dylan. "I was backstage, and Bob ran over and grabbed me," Andersen recalls. " 'You've gotta meet Johnny Cash, man!' Cash was a hero to us, one of the original cats. So Bob brought me back to his tent, and I met John. He had just done his set, and he was really wired. He looked like a puppet whose strings were all tangled up – half cut, and half held together – and he was just jiggling around."
That darker, uncontrolled side of Cash has drawn generations of fans to him even as many of his contemporaries – and their progeny – have fallen out of favor. He is, after all, the man who, in "Folsom Prison Blues," sang, "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die" in 1955, decades before gangsta rap was born. He demolished hotel rooms and stomped out the lights on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry while Keith Moon was still in short pants.
Those experiences also make Cash, who is now sixty-eight, sympathetic when younger musicians are attacked for causing violence by singing and rapping about it in their songs. "I don't think music and movies have anything to do with it," Cash says, when asked about the relationship between violence and popular culture. "I think it's in the person. I mean, I'm an entertainer. 'I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die' is a fantasy. I didn't shoot anybody in Reno – and I didn't kill Delia," he adds with a chuckle, alluding to a grisly folk song he adapted on his 1994 American Recordings album.
"But it's fun to sing about those things," he continues. "Murder ballads go way back in country music. Even the Carter Family, they got some really bloody records. There's 'The Banks of the Ohio' with all that 'stuck a knife in her breast and watched her as she went down under the water, and the bubbles came up out of her mouth, and the water turned red.' And Jimmie Rodgers – 'I'm gonna buy me a shotgun/Just as long as I'm tall/And I'm gonna shoot poor Thelma/Just to see her jump and fall.' That's right up there with 'shot a man in Reno.'
"But these songs are just for singing, and singers always knew that. I'm not suggesting that anybody consider learning how to shoot a gun. I'm not suggesting that they even own one. Although I do. I used to collect antique Colt pistols. But they weren't for shooting. They were like ancient coins – I collect those, too. But the coins aren't for spending, and the guns aren't for shooting."
Inevitably, the discussion about violence leads to the deeply held religious beliefs that are the other pull in Cash's divided soul. They are the salve to the urges most aptly described in the title of a Nick Lowe song he covered a few years back: "The Beast in Me." "There's something missing there," Cash says. "There's a spiritual hunger in people for goodness and righteousness. There's an emptiness in people that they're trying to fill. And I don't know why they go about it the way they do."
Bono recalls visiting Cash in Hendersonville during a drive across the U.S. He and U2 bassist Adam Clayton sat down for a meal with Johnny and June. "We bowed our heads and John spoke this beautiful, poetic grace," Bono says, "and we were all humbled and moved. Then he looked up afterwards and said, 'Sure miss the drugs, though.' "
Cash is content to let his convictions, however conflicted, speak for themselves. "I believe what I say, but that don't necessarily make me right," he says, laughing. "There's nothing hypocritical about it. There is a spiritual side to me that goes real deep, but I confess right upfront that I'm the biggest sinner of them all." He even views his battle with drug addiction in spiritual terms. "I used drugs to escape," he says quietly, "and they worked pretty well when I was younger. But they devastated me physically and emotionally – and spiritually. That last one hurt so much: to put myself in such a low state that I couldn't communicate with God. There's no lonelier place to be. I was separated from God, and I wasn't even trying to call on him. I knew that there was no line of communication. But he came back. And I came back."
That sense of spiritual wisdom garnered through grueling experience has given Cash the moral strength, as an artist and a person, to always stand his ground. Throughout his life Cash has pandered to no specific audience or constituency. In the Sixties and early Seventies, he performed for American troops and protested the Vietnam War. He defended Native American rights long before it became fashionable. He has both played in prisons and supported organizations that assist the families of slain police officers. And he stands by his friends.
"I opened for John in Philadelphia a few years ago, and I dedicated a song to Mumia Abu-Jamal," Kristofferson recalls. Abu-Jamal is an African-American journalist who is currently on death row for allegedly murdering a police officer – in Philadelphia. His case has become a flash point for activists, who believe Abu-Jamal was railroaded and who want him to get a new trial. It's a flash point as well for law-enforcement organizations, who view him as a coldblooded killer. "The police at the show went ballistic," Kristofferson continues. "After I came off, they said that I had to go out and make an apology. I felt pretty bad, because it was John's show. But John heard about it and said to me, 'Listen, you don't need to apologize for nothin'. I want you to come out at the end of the show and do "Why Me" with me.' So I went out and sang with him. John just refuses to compromise."
Johnny Cash became a superstar in his mid-twenties, enjoying an impressive run of hits between 1956 and 1958 on Sun Records, the Memphis label run by Sam Phillips, the man who originally signed Elvis Presley. Like Presley, Cash soon left Sun to sign with a major label, in his case, Columbia. On Columbia, his success continued, beginning with "All Over Again" and the classic "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" in 1958. "Ring of Fire" (1963) was his next major hit, and it's a song with a gripping story behind it.
Cash first laid eyes on June Carter when, on a high school class trip, he saw her perform with the Carter Family at the Grand Ole Opry. He liked what he saw then, and when he met her in person backstage at the Opry six years later, he told her, "You and I are going to get married someday." June laughed and said she couldn't wait. The only problem was she already was married. In his autobiography Cash deadpans: "She was either still married to Carl Smith or about to be married to Rip Nix, I forget which . . . "
Of course, Cash was married himself, so nothing much happened until 1962, when June joined Cash's roadshow. "We got married in a fever/Hotter than a pepper sprout," the two would sing in "Jackson," the song that became their signature, and from the start the attraction between them was strong and undeniable. Composed by June and country star Merle Kilgore, "Ring of Fire" is the story of those first, over-whelming feelings of danger, lust and love. June, after all, was a daughter of country royalty, and Cash, his addictions raging, had already more than earned his wild-man rep. "Love is a burning thing," the song begins, "And it makes a fiery ring/Bound by wild desire/I fell into a ring of fire."
"I never talked much about how I fell in love with John," June recalls about writing the song. "And I certainly didn't tell him how I felt. It was not a convenient time for me to fall in love with him – and it wasn't a convenient time for him to fall in love with me. One morning, about four o'clock, I was driving my car just about as fast as I could. I thought, 'Why am I out on the highway this time of night?' I was miserable, and it all came to me: I'm falling in love with somebody I have no right to fall in love with.'
"I was frightened of his way of life," she continues. "I'd watched Hank Williams die. I was part of his life – I'm Hank Jr.'s godmother – and I'd grieved. So I thought, 'I can't fall in love with this man, but it's just like a ring of fire.' I wanted so to play the song for John, but I knew he would see right through me. So I gave it to my sister Anita, and she recorded it – her version was like a folk song, like bells ringing in the mountains. When John heard it, he said, 'I want to do that song.' "
Cash, needless to say, knew exactly what the song was about from the start. "I remember she had some lyrics," Cash says. "She had a line where she called herself 'the firering woman,' and then she changed that. I said, 'You got it right when you called yourself a "fire-ring woman," because that's exactly where I am.' We hadn't really pledged our love – we hadn't said, 'I love you.' We were both afraid to say it, because we knew what was going to happen: that eventually we were both going to be divorced, and we were going to go through hell. Which we did.
"But the 'ring of fire' was not the hell," he continues. "That was kind of a sweet fire. The ring of fire that I found myself in with June was the fire of redemption. It cleansed. It made me believe everything was all right, because it felt so good. When we fell in love, she took it upon herself to be responsible for me staying alive. I didn't think I was killing myself, but you're on the suicide track when you're doing what I was doing. Amphetamines and alcohol will make you crazy, boy!
"She'd take my drugs and throw them away, and we'd have a big fight over it. I'd get some more, and she'd do it again. I'd make her promise not to, but she would do it anyway." He laughs. "She'd lie to me. She'd hide my money. She'd do anything. She fought me with everything she had."
By the time June and Johnny got married in 1968, his career had reached another peak. The live album he released that year, At Folsom Prison, sold extremely well. Then, in 1969, he enjoyed the biggest hit of his career, albeit with a novelty song, Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue." He began hosting his own network television series, The Johnny Cash Show, and used it as a forum for a bold array of musical talent, from Bob Dylan (who appeared on the opening show) to Louis Armstrong, Pete Seeger, Linda Ronstadt and Carl Perkins.
As the Seventies progressed, however, Cash's star waned. Early in the decade, the singer-songwriter movement in rock and the outlaw movement in country provided him with aesthetic vindication and a raft of spiritual heirs. But he shared nothing with later phenomena like disco and the urban-cowboy craze, and the connections between his music and punk rock would only become apparent later. The glitz-obsessed Eighties and the onslaught of MTV did little to help matters. Cash made some strong albums in this period – and some bad ones – but he seemed to have lost his artistic compass.
He remained a powerful draw on the road, however, and in 1985 he joined the Highwaymen, an occasional alliance with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson that would continue until the onset of his illness. In the meantime, Rosanne Cash, a daughter from his first marriage, and June's daughter Carlene both launched their own musical careers. As often is the case with children of the greats, rebellion and resentment battled love and support on all sides. Carlene's insistence, for example, that she wanted to put "the cunt back in country" was obviously designed both to shred the Carter Family mantle and to crack the iron reserve of her mother's husband. It worked on both counts.
For her part, Rosanne remembers her struggle to escape her father's looming shadow. "I was very rebellious," she says. "I couldn't stand the constant references to him. I wanted to do it on my own. That's not unlike any person in their early twenties, but it just so happened that my dad was very public so I had to rebel a little harder – and I rose to that test [laughs]." That her father was experiencing his own career woes only exacerbated the situation. "When I was having hit records, my dad and I felt competitive with each other," Rosanne says. "He admitted it later. I mean, he would ask me about my contract and how many points I was getting [laughs]. We went through that phase. But when he felt that I was pulling away from him, he gave me a lot of space. I think it probably hurt him some."
Cash regained a focus in his work after meeting producer Rick Rubin in the early Nineties. Rubin had made his reputation with albums by LL Cool J, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys, but he was determined to sign Cash to his label, American Recordings. Cash had no idea who Rubin was or what conceivable interest the producer could have in him. "From the very beginning, I couldn't see what he saw in me," Cash says, bluntly. But Rubin felt he understood exactly who Johnny Cash is. "He's a timeless presence," Rubin says. "From the beginning of rock & roll there's always been this dark figure who never really fit. He's still the quintessential outsider. In the hip-hop world you see all these badboy artists who are juggling being on MTV and running from the law. John was the originator of that."
The three albums Cash and Rubin have made together, American Recordings (1994), Unchained (1996) and, now, Solitary Man, have helped Cash discover a voice suitable both to a man of his age, disposition and accomplishments and to contemporary times. American Recordings received a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, while Unchained won for Best Country Album.
"From the first day, working with Rick has been easy, laid-back, relaxed and trustworthy," Cash says. "We trusted each other to be honest. I said, 'I'm gonna sing you a song and if you don't like it, you tell me. And if you got a song that you like and I don't, you've got to listen to me. I can't sing it if I don't like it.' But he's come up with some really fine songs, and he never pushed anything on me. We get along beautifully."
Solitary Man typically reflects the wide range of music that has shaped Johnny Cash's soul. "There's a Bert Williams song written in about 1905 called 'Nobody,' " Cash recounts. "You ever hear 'Nobody'? [starts to sing] I ain't never done nothin' to nobody/I ain't ever got nothin' from nobody no time/And until I get something from somebody sometime/I don't intend to do nothin' for nobody no time." He laughs, clears his throat and begins again: "When wintertime comes with its snow and sleet/And me with hunger and cold feet/Who says, 'Here's two bits, go and eat'?/Nobody."
He laughs again. "It's a great old song," he says. "Then there's a new song I'm recording next session called 'The Mercy Seat' – it's a Nick Cave song. And I'm writing three or four songs myself at the same time. It's the first time I've ever had them bombard my brain like that. I hadn't written for more than a year since I got sick, but when I started recording, the ideas started coming. I'll finish them as we work."
For his part, Rubin also found some songs for Cash, including Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man," which became the title track, and Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," the album's opening song. Cash was unable to put in long days in the studio, but, according to Rubin, his illness didn't really affect their work together. "He's been fine; we just have to take breaks," he explains. "Whenever he feels comfortable, we record. It's been very pleasant."
The process of working on the album energized Cash. Even the setting proved restorative. "We're recording in a log cabin in the woods, right straight across the road from my house," Cash says. "I built it in '78, and it's just one room. It's got a kitchen, a bathroom off the back and state-of-the-art equipment. We're surrounded by goats, deer, peacocks and crows. We have to stop taping sometimes because the goats get on the porch and tromp around."
Rubin was similarly inspired by the locale. "It feels appropriate, him singing these songs in that environment," he says of the studio. "Lyrically, this album is intense, but musically it's relaxed.
"One thing is a little bit different," Rubin adds a moment later, thinking back to the question of Cash's health and its impact on their work. "John is a little more self-conscious about his vocals. There's no need for him to be – they're spectacular. But when he listens to them, he often feels, 'I can do better than that.' Meanwhile, everyone in the room is like, 'That was amazing.' I think because he doesn't feel well physically all the time, he's projecting that onto the work. But I don't hear it. I hear these strong, beautiful songs.
"He loves music – it is his life," Rubin says. "After one session, he said to me, 'You know, I think this is going to be my best album ever.' He's made what, 200 albums? It's exciting to be around someone who's done that much work and still wants to make his best album."
Grace is a word that suggests both spiritual blessings and dignity of action, and both those definitions fully apply to Solitary Man. He turns in a splendid version of U2's "One." His voice does falter a bit on "I Won't Back Down," but while the song seemed in search of a meaning when Tom Petty sang it (and Petty turns up on this version as well), in Cash's hands it takes on a staggering gravity. That refusal to go gently gets picked up in Will Oldham's scarifying "I See a Darkness," on which Cash sings, "You know I have a drive to live/I won't let go/But can you see/Its opposition comes rising up sometimes . . . And that I see a darkness?"
Cash plans to start working on a new album right away. As Rick Rubin said, music is Cash's life. "I didn't like that 'public figure' business," Cash says. "I didn't like that 'American statesman' stuff. I didn't like that 'great spiritual leader' stuff. I am a very private person about those things. So many times, when there would be something I'd have to do that I didn't have my heart in, I'd say, 'All I ever wanted to do was play my guitar and sing a simple song.' And that's still all I want to do."
These days, Johnny Cash doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to do. In a merciless way, illness can clarify your life. "Yeah, well, most of 'em are dead," he says with a grim insouciance when asked if he ever sees any of the people with whom he helped create rock & roll. "Carl Perkins and his brothers are all dead. Bill Black. Elvis. Roy Orbison, who was not only my best friend, but my next-door neighbor for twenty years.
"Of the ones who are still left, I talk to Marshall Grant, who played bass for me for so long. He and I are friends. [Producer] Jack Clement and I are still really close. We don't really do a lot of 'good ol' days' sessions, but if something comes up, we'll argue about who's right about it. But I don't see many of them, no. I don't see many people at all since I got sick."
The Carter Family's staunch Appalachian will to survive courses in June's blood, along with a Southern woman's determination to cheerfully make the best out of whatever travails fate may bring. She is now seventy-one, and her devotion to her husband is absolute. "Even now, since John's been sick, we've just had so much fun," she says. "When he first got ill, I said, 'We're going to quit work for a year, and then we'll see how we feel.' And we'll quit another year if we want to. Who says we have to work? We've got a lot of front porches – we'll go sit on them."
"There's unconditional love there," says Cash about his marriage. "You hear that phrase a lot, but it's real with me and her. She loves me in spite of everything, in spite of myself. She has saved my life more than once. She's always been there with her love, and it has certainly made me forget the pain for a long time, many times. When it gets dark, and everybody's gone home and the lights are turned off, it's just me and her."
Johnny and June spend as much time as they can with their family, and they travel among their homes in Tennessee, Virginia and Jamaica. Despite being a longtime road horse, Cash will not be able to tour in support of Solitary Man. "It depresses him," says Rosanne. "He's not used to sitting around. He's a very powerful person and to not feel well, that's really hard for him. He spent over forty years on the road, and suddenly he's not out there. When that energy comes to a screeching halt, there's a lot to deal with just inside yourself."
Whatever he needs to deal with, either inside or outside himself, Johnny Cash will make do and not complain. He doesn't know any other way. "I wouldn't trade my future for anyone's I know," he writes in the liner notes to Solitary Man. "I believe that everything I've done and lived through is what has brought me to this part of my life right now," he says, as he looks around his den and remembers the many roads, rough and smooth, he's traveled down. "I like to say I have no regrets. And I really don't."