MOST DAYS, JOHNNY CASH IS UP BY 4 A.M. HE GOES DOWNSTAIRS, brews coffee and turns on the news. He might fall back to sleep for an hour or so in his black leather recliner, then he shaves, showers and puts on some clothes. His next few hours will be spent in a grand living room overlooking Hickory Lake, north of Nashville, listening to the Thirties and Forties gospel groups that he loves more than anything else right now.
By then it’s 9 A.M. That’s when the trouble starts. “I’ll sit there with June and I say, ‘June, what do I do now? What in the world do I do now?’ And she says, ‘John, you don’t have to do anything, just rest.’ And I say, ‘I’m not tired. And I’m not sick. I got to do something with this day.'”
Sometimes they go shopping. “I go to Dillards or Wal-Mart with June and just hang out with her,” says Cash, who’s been married to June Carter since 1968. “So long as she’s shopping, so long as she’s moving, I follow. I’m a great shopper. I buy shirts and records. I’ve got too many shirts already, most of them black.”
Johnny Cash turned seventy in February, and the years wear hard. At first, it’s jarring to see him — heavy, unsteady on his feet, that famous shock of black hair gone white. Cash has diabetes, and he’s been in and out of the hospital with pneumonia — serious enough to put him in a coma for eight days in October 2001. Glaucoma has stolen most of his eyesight; asthma keeps him fighting for breath. (In 1999, Cash was misdiagnosed with Shy-Drager, a Parkinson’s like neurological disorder he says he knew he never had. “An old man knows in his bones if he’s got a debilitating disease,” he says. “And I knew I didn’t have that one.”)
Even as he struggles for breath, Cash radiates a fierce determination. For forty-seven years, he has made music that fuses two dark traditions: rustic religious fatalism and reckless self-abandon. He has recorded with Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Bono, as well as Fiona Apple, Nick Cave and Sheryl Crow. His legend surrounds him, and you can’t help being convinced when he says age and illness don’t scare him — he’s faced down death so many times before. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think about death at all,” Cash says. “What’s to think about? I enjoy my life now.” He talks openly, and with humor, about his years of drug abuse and illness, and he admits that even now the old demons lurk. “They don’t come knocking on a regular basis,” he says. “They just kind of hold their distance. I could invite them in: the sex demon, the drug demon. But I don’t. They’re very sinister. You got to watch ’em.” He laughs. “They’ll sneak up on you. All of a sudden there’ll be a beautiful little Percodan laying there, and you’ll want it.”
Cash quit touring in 1997, after forty-two years on the road, but he continues to make music at a remarkable pace. His new album, The Man Comes Around, is the fourth in a sterling run with producer Rick Rubin that has resulted in moments that stand with the finest of Cash’s career. The song choice is ballsy — from a version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” that Cash makes even more isolated and painful than the original to a hymnlike interpretation of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Cash’s voice is shaky in places, but the cracks and slurs add to its ragged grandeur. “At one point, I said to Rick, ‘We’re really getting sad and mournful with this album,’ ” Cash says. “And he said, ‘Not depression-sad, just sad for the sake of sadness.’ After that, I thought, you know, if that’s what’s coming, let’s go for it.” They did. Especially on Cash’s version of the traditional “Danny Boy,” there is the feeling of a final message being delivered.
Now, Cash has begun work on a new album of gospel songs, including favorites by the Golden Gate Quartet and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama: “I’ve always wanted to do black gospel, and I know I’m a little tightass saying ‘black’ — I’m a honky — but I feel like I need to do it. I feel like it’s going to be all right.” After that, he wants to do an album called Grass Roots — a survey of folk and country songs “all the way back to Stephen Foster.” Asked if he might retire,
THE CASH HOME IS A MAJESTIC WOOD-AND-GLASS modern castle set into the limestone cliffs above Hickory Lake. Some of the log beams were salvaged from pioneer barns along the nearby Cumberland River. Ornate chandeliers, dark rugs and antique wooden furniture fill the rooms. Cash’s office is the smallest room in the house — not much bigger than a tour-bus bunk. A window looks out over Cash’s old fishing dock and the glassy gray lake. “This is about my favorite place,” he says, sitting at his desk on a cloudy November morning. “I don’t need all that space.” He wears a denim work shirt with the Sun Records logo on it, black work pants, black sneakers and blue socks. Around him, the walls are lined with books — volumes on religion, folk music, American literature and politics. Nixon’s memoirs sit next to a thick history of the Aztecs; a book of Christian hymns hides behind a box of Winchester bullets. Cash’s eyesight is so bad that he can’t read anymore. “It’s a room of regrets now,” he says. “I miss my books.” Cash reaches for a guitar carved from a Virginia mulberry tree. His hands are swollen, but he picks through two traditional gospel tunes easily, and then his own “Half a Mile a Day,” which he plans to include on the new album. Cash wrote the song twenty years ago but came back to it now, he says, “because I wasn’t satisfied.”
This afternoon, Johnny and June Cash plan to go to the studio he’s built out of a one-room log cabin on a remote part of his property. They’ll record vocals for Cash’s album and for a solo album June is making. Cash is itching to get to work, but first he wants breakfast. He’s on a no-salt, no-sugar diet and eats lighter than he used to, but he confesses, “Sometimes I’ll have a breakfast sandwich, which is two fried eggs with crisp bacon on cinnamon toast. It’s good, it really is.” He pauses. “You want one?”
Breakfast is a big time at the Cashes’. June, radiant at seventy-three, joins us at a formally set dining table. Sandwiches arrive for Johnny and me, and June builds her own breakfast invention: cinnamon toast with cream cheese, crushed raspberries and pear preserves made from fruit grown outside the kitchen window.
The Cashes plan to leave for their winter home in Jamaica in two days, and the house is buzzing with cooks and maids making preparations. There’s other family business, too. A Cash family member is in trouble with drugs; an intervention is planned for the next morning. Drug abuse, Cash says wearily, “runs through this family like a turkey through the corn. Man, it’s terrible. We’re just trying to save him, trying to snatch him up before he goes.”
Cash seems worn out after breakfast. He’s eager to get away. “Jamaica-itis,” he says.
“A week down there, we’ll have our energy back,” June chips in.
Cash smiles at her. “When we get to Jamaica,” he says, “there’s no stopping us.”
He stands, leans against a chair for balance and excuses himself for a nap. On the way out, Cash stops and turns back to June. “We’ll go over at two,” he says. “You and me got some singing to do.”