When it comes to the extraordinary life, career and legacy of Johnny Cash, just scratching the surface would be a daunting task for any documentary filmmaker. Revisiting the legend that is the Man in Black can prove challenging, especially when the central subject has already been portrayed in an Oscar-winning biopic and numerous books and TV specials. The latest attempt to solve the fascinating puzzle of one of America’s greatest entertainers is CMT’s original documentary, Johnny Cash: American Rebel.
Premiering on CMT Saturday night, September 12th at 9 p.m./ET — the 12th anniversary of Cash’s death — the film examines the effect, for better or worse, that Cash (the man and the performer) had on his fans worldwide, as well as on those who knew him best, his family and friends. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Sheryl Crow, Eric Church and John Mellencamp are among those offering commentary, and some even perform snippets of Cash’s most well-known songs. Church’s take on “The Man in Black” is especially haunting.
Cash family members also offer keen insights: son John Carter Cash, daughter Rosanne Cash, and Carlene Carter, whose mother, June Carter, famously became Cash’s second wife. Some of the film’s most revelatory moments come courtesy of Rosanne, who recalls how her mother, Vivian Liberto, tried in vain to hang on to her troubled marriage to the touring musician as both his popularity and his addiction to amphetamines increased. She also acknowledges that the marriage of Johnny and June, which lasted from 1968 until her death in May 2003, “made sense.” The film’s most heartbreaking moments, indeed, capture Cash coming to terms with his wife’s death and contemplating his own mortality. He would die just four months after June. Here are 10 things we learned from American Rebel.
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- The Cashes were rooted in gospel music.
While toiling in the Arkansas cotton fields during his childhood, Cash and his family, especially his mother, would sing as a way to escape the hard work and drudgery. “It took us away,” he says at the beginning of the film. “It carried our spirits away… away from the pain, away from the grief. If we couldn’t sing, I don’t think we could have made it.”
- Cash had a deeply troubled relationship with his father, Ray Cash.
The elder Cash didn’t want his sons wasting time playing or listening to the radio when they should be working. After the accidental death of his 15-year-old brother, Jack, when Johnny was 12, Ray Cash often told Johnny that the wrong son had died. “His grief was something that infused the rest of his life,” Rosanne Cash says.
- Cash first pitched himself to Sun Records’ Sam Phillips as a gospel singer.
Phillips told him gospel singers don’t sell records, so Cash returned with a country song, “Hey Porter.” Phillips wanted to release it but said the record would need a flipside. Cash then came up with the country weeper “Cry, Cry, Cry,” — which would go on to become his first hit. The song’s success earned him a spot as an “extra added attraction” on an Elvis Presley show at a park in Memphis.
- Merle Haggard wasn’t impressed with Cash’s music when he first heard him in the mid-Fifties.
“I thought he was kind of corny,” says Haggard in the film, adding that he changed his opinion once he saw him in person. “He had something that can’t be described with charisma. It’s deeper than that. It’s more than that. You could put him in a room full of presidents and he would have stood out. Elvis didn’t even have what Cash had.”
- Contrary to a popular misconception, while Cash was once arrested for a drug offense, he never served time in prison, yet he always had a great affinity for the plight of prisoners.
While stationed in the Air Force in West Germany, Cash watched a film called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison and was inspired to write what would become one of his signature tunes, “Folsom Prison Blues.” The song’s melody, and especially the first lines, borrowed liberally from a bluesy torch song called “Crescent City Blues.” Mellencamp’s commentary on such song “borrowing” is one of the film’s many laugh-out-loud moments.
- Cash wrote “I Walk the Line” backstage at a concert in Gladewater, Texas.
After a conversation with his band about how carefree their lives on the road were while away from their girlfriends, the married Cash said, “Not me… I walk the line.” Cash and the band recorded the song live, with no studio fixes, and the song’s numerous key changes required Cash to hum in between verses to stay in tune. The singer would “walk the line” for another decade before divorcing first wife Vivian Liberto to marry June Carter. Ironically, the song’s success kept him away from home more than ever.
- Cash’s grueling tour schedule led to his addiction to amphetamines and a change in his appearance.
“It didn’t start because he was looking to get high,” Rosanne Cash explains. “It started because he was looking to do his job.” After signing with Columbia Records and touring non-stop, Cash began to lose weight. His face appeared more gaunt and wrinkled. While on tour in El Paso, Texas, in 1965, Cash was arrested when police found more than 1,000 pills hidden inside his guitar. He had been turned in to DEA agents by the same cab driver on the Texas-Mexico border who helped him procure the contraband.
- Bob Dylan hitchhiked to Duluth, Minnesota, to see Cash in concert.
The concert ticket cost $2. Years later, when he met Cash, Dylan told him, “I didn’t just dig you, I breathed you.” In 1969, Dylan would go on to be one of the first guests on ABC’s Johnny Cash Show, in spite of his aversion to performing on television. The two performed a duet of “Girl From the North Country,” which they recorded together for Dylan’s landmark Nashville Skyline LP. Cash would win a Grammy for writing the album’s liner notes.
- During his famous San Quentin Prison concert, Cash immediately won the inmates over by impersonating one of the guards.
The unflattering mimicking of a correctional officer, who was leaning against a wall chewing gum, is captured in colorful footage shot during the making of Cash’s Grammy-winning 1969 At San Quentin LP, which was released a year after the iconic At Folsom Prison album. At the end of his performance of “San Quentin,” Cash asks, “If any of the guards are still speaking to me, could I have a glass of water?” One of the inmates in attendance was 21-year-old Merle Haggard.
10. Despite his dour persona, Cash could be wildly irreverent.
With his black clothing and poignant songs, Cash exuded a somber air. But to friends and family, he was an unrepentant jokester. American Rebel captures rare footage of the singer sliding into the front-seat of a low-riding sportscar, licking June Carter’s face and “executing a chair.” With the sun setting, Cash strides onto his lawn clutching a troublesome white chair and flings it skyward into the trees, as home video captures the shenanigans. June stands on the porch observing and disapproving, but the humor is undeniable.