Can you name anyone in this day and age who is as cool as Johnny Cash? No, you can’t. He’s the genuine article, the real deal, and he was a badass long before most of today’s young whelps were born. Cash is feeling mighty good these days, what with an instant classic of an album, American Recordings, produced by Rick Rubin and recorded in both Cash’s own cabin in Hendersonville, Tenn., and Rubin’s Hollywood living room. There is also a renewed, almost frenzied interest in the man. Hipsters, actors and models clog his shows in the vain hope that some of the Cash mystique will rub off on them. Cash takes all this attention with his usual calm as he chats from his hotel room at Los Angeles’ Four Seasons Hotel, where he’s registered under his own damn name. “What name would I be under?” he booms. “I mean, who cares?”
I just can’t picture you staying in swanky hotels like the Four Seasons.
Well, where would I stay?
I don’t know, I guess. . .
I don’t know anybody here in L.A. that I would want to stay with. And hotels are my life. Plus, I like room service.
Now, you said you discovered a whole new world of music this year. How so?
Well, really what I discovered, I guess, is myself. I discovered my own self and what makes me tick musically and what I really like. It was really a great inward journey, doing all these sessions over a period of nine months and Rick sitting there not so much as a producer but as a friend who shared the songs with me. “What else you got?” he’d say, or “Listen to this one,” and he’d play one.
You recorded 70 songs. What will become of the ones you didn’t use?
I think a lot of them will be used, and I’m not sure how. A lot of them are songs of the ilk that are on the album, some of them have other instruments on them. A few sparse instruments. A lot of them are just me and my guitar. I always wanted to do an album of gospel songs like that, you know. And Rick kinda liked some of ’em, so we may do that, too.
Could you describe your first encounter with Glenn Danzig?
You mean my one encounter with Glenn Danzig? Well, I went into Rick’s house one night, and he was sitting here with this young man, and Rick said, “This is Glenn. Glenn has a song for you, John.” So I sat down opposite him with a guitar, and he started singing this song, “Thirteen.” He sang it over four or five times, then I started singing it with him, and then I sat down and recorded it. And it was only after I got through that I knew who he was. I’d heard of the group Danzig, but Rick didn’t say Glenn Danzig, he said Glenn.
I read once that Rick wasn’t incredibly familiar with your music but that he thought you were cool. How do you feel about that?
Well, I appreciate him thinkin’ I’m cool. I didn’t expect him to be all that familiar with my music. I gave him the big box set, and I gave him my discography that goes back to ’55.
So he studied up a bit?
Well, really, it was in case he wanted to know anything about me or my recordings. But we sat down across from each other or side to side so many nights over a period of nine months, I think he knows my capabilities and my limitations musically and vocally. And he got into learning chords with me. The chords I wanted to play, but I didn’t know what they were, we kinda learned the chords together.
Is it official that you’ll be doing some dates for Lollapalooza this year?
No. I keep hearing that, but there’s never been any firm offer for me to do it, and I don’t know that I have any dates left. I’m booked up to Christmas. If there are any dates left over, and the Lollapalooza tour dates are still offered to me, probably I’ll do some of’em, but I’m not sure.
What was it like playing the Viper Room? That must have been a different experience.
It was kinda like playing a bloody honkytonk in the ’50s. That kind of attitude, like “Let’s have fun.” And it’s a very small place, smaller, actually, than the early years. If I feel like if I can just go onstage with my guitar and sing my songs, I can’t do wrong no matter where I am.
When you played Fez, in New York, it was quite the scene. The place was crawling with models. Did you notice that?
Well, of course, I noticed that! There were lots of models.
You’re a red-blooded man, after all.
Yeah. I did notice that. Kate Moss was there, I didn’t know the others’ names, really.
So how did you hook up with Kate Moss for your “Delia’s Gone” video?
I like the way you put that, “hook up with.” [Laughs.] She was in the video before I was. They said, “Kate Moss is doing it for you,” and I said, “Fine, great.”
Were you surprised when U2 came calling last year to have you do “The Wanderer” on Zooropa?
Nope. We’ve been friends with those guys about seven or eight years. They’ve been to my home in Tennessee twice. Bono had been to my show before when I played Dublin, but this time three of ’em came: the Edge and Larry Mullen and Bono. And I got them out onstage with me at the end of the show to sing “Big River.” That was really quite a party. Bono wrote down his verse in the palm of his hand. He was singin’ looking at his hand. ‘Course, he had that perpetual cigarette in his other hand. After the show, he asked me if I would come by the studio the next day and listen to a song he wrote for me. And we put down the track that day. I didn’t have any idea it was going to be on the album — he says, “We’re just recording some experimental music.”
When you listen to your daughter Rosanne’s autobiographical songs about, uh, drinking and wildness and running around, do you admire her songwriting, or do you get a fatherly twinge of “Hey, that’s my daughter!”
No, I never get that fatherly twinge. Not at all. You know, I’ve been down that same road she has, it’s just something I can relate to and love her more for, because she’s overcome it. I wasn’t smart enough to do it that young. I admire her very much. And her songwriting, too. She wrote a great song about me called “My Old Man.”
Are you a fan of modern country music?
I’ve always been a fan of a little of it. I’m a traditionalist. I like the old traditional country music. I like George Jones, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, early Gene Autry, Hank Snow. That, to me, was the seminal country music, and to me, it’s still the best. Whereas country has gotten to, I think, the age now of electronic, push-button, TV, video and all that and special effects. I don’t listen to a lot of country music, no. I don’t listen to a lot of rock, either. I listen to a little of both. I listen to everything once.
Last question. I heard that just before you return rental cars, you stuff Big Macs under the seat as a prank.
That’s a new one. I haven’t heard that one. I never have done that. You don’t know about the other things, but that’s OK. I haven’t done that, but maybe it’s because I didn’t think of it.
OK, well, thank you for. . .
Listen, before you go, I want to tell you something I haven’t told anybody else.
You know my album cover with the two dogs on it? I’ve given them names. Their names are Sin and Redemption. Sin is the black one with the white stripe; Redemption is the white one with the black stripe. That’s kind of the theme of the album, and I think it says it for me, too. When I was really bad, I was not all bad. When I was really trying to be good, I could never be all good. There would be that black streak going through.