After composing the score for the King of Rock & Roll documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher in 2018, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready has directed his attention to the Man in Black, reuniting with director Thom Zimny to create the soundtrack for The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash. A new doc about the mercurial country singer, the YouTube Originals production (premiering November 11th) looks at Cash’s tortured past — the accidental death of his older brother; his own damaging affair with drugs — and subsequent redemption through spirituality and his marriage to June Carter.
To best depict those lows and highs, McCready retreated to his home studio in Seattle to watch the film and come up with appropriately moody, but reverential, sounds.
“I would watch the scenes and try to feel what the scenes meant to me, the emotion of what Johnny was talking about or the situation he was in,” McCready says. “I’ve been a huge fan of his ever since the Eighties. It was a scary and exciting thing to be part of because I wanted to do it as reverentially and as well as I could.”
We talked to McCready about the soundtrack, which is out now digitally, the impact of Cash on his own music, and what Pearl Jam is up to.
How big of an influence was Cash on you?
Johnny Cash was and is so important in my life in terms of learning about music. That guy was a rock & roll star before anybody was. We’d always talk about that in Seattle that there’s no one like Johnny Cash. Eddie and I got to do the Bob Dylan [1992 tribute concert] and we did “Masters of War,” and right as I’m walking offstage, Johnny Cash goes, “Good job, son.” I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m never going to forget this. This is the greatest night in my life.”
We think of you as a guitar player, but there’s a lot of piano in the score. What instrument did you go to first?
I would initially go to the guitar because that’s my safety net or where I could create the best. But I also wanted to push myself to do something different, so the piano was on there … it adds a sadness to it, and elements of minimalism. I’m starting to do a little more films these days and less is more sometimes. I have to think in terms of “What do I need to say in that time?” And generally it’s the first couple things that I write. That’s how I create with Pearl Jam too.
“The Cave, the Darkness, and the Presence of Light” is overwhelming when you hear the music paired with Cash’s own tale of passing out in a cave near Chattanooga, Tennessee.
It was such a dark, evocative scene of his struggle, in terms of his addiction and where he was in his life. And June’s love pulling him out of that. I’ve had my own struggles in the past too, so I felt that. I felt, ‘oh, my gosh, this is dark and I’m going to go to my dark place [for this song].’ I’m glad he got out of that. That was a heavy scene.
Did Pearl Jam ever send Cash any songs to record?
I don’t think we did. I would have loved that. I know Soundgarden did. But we never did.
What Pearl Jam song would you have liked to have heard him interpret?
Off the top of my head … something like “[Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a] Small Town.” I’d selfishly want him to maybe do one of my songs, like “Given to Fly,” but my brain just goes right to “Small Town.”
So what’s going on with Pearl Jam? It’s been almost seven years since your last album.
Has it been that long? Oh, my gosh. We’ve been busy toiling in the studio on and off for seven years. We’re working at our own pace, and doing some music right now, and it’s cool and different and I’m excited about it. But we’re not finished with anything yet. So I wish I had an answer for you, but know that we are recording right now. We’re excited to be playing together again.
The band’s last big U.S. tour was a short ballpark run in 2018. Are you booking dates for 2020?
Nothing as of yet. I mean, I hope we can go out. I’m ready to play some music again with my guys and go out and do it. But we don’t have any plans as of yet. Right now, I’m doing stuff like this cool Johnny Cash thing I got to be involved in, and trying to keep busy. I’ve been helping my friends in this band Thunderpussy write some songs and I’m helping them with their second record right now.
You and Brandi Carlile are neighbors. I hear you both go ATV riding together.
We do ATV ride and I just try to keep up with her. She is a dear friend of mine and I’m so proud and happy for the success of her last record. She is probably the most hardworking person I have ever met in my life, in terms of the music business, and has probably some of the most integrity I’ve ever seen in an individual.
In Nashville, she’s now treated like royalty.
I know — she loves that. She’s talked fondly of the Ryman and I have fun in Nashville myself too. The Country Music Hall of Fame is incredible. I got to see Gram Parsons’ actual suit, and the Smokey and the Bandit II car, which blew my mind.
And back to Cash, Mother Maybelle Carter’s guitar is on display too.
Her history is so integral to rock & roll. How to fingerpick and how amazing her style was. To see that and to see Hank Williams’ stuff and Johnny’s stuff and Buck Owens, and Brad Paisley — the shredders of guitar that I look up to.
You’re a Paisley fan?
Yeah, Brad Paisley is so good on guitar. He’s one of those guys where I’m like, wow. I really respect his playing. It’s fluid and emotional and faster than shit and it’s really awesome. To watch that kind of style is really fascinating to me.