I was asked to give a statement on Johnny’s passing and thought about writing a piece instead called “Cash Is King,” because that is the way I really feel. In plain terms, Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him — the greatest of the greats then and now. I first met him in ’62 or ’63 and saw him a lot in those years. Not so much recently, but in some kind of way he was with me more than people I see every day.
There wasn’t much music media in the early Sixties, and Sing Out! was the magazine covering all things folk in character. The editors had published a letter chastising me for the direction my music was going. Johnny wrote the magazine back an open letter telling the editors to shut up and let me sing, that I knew what I was doing. This was before I had ever met him, and the letter meant the world to me. I’ve kept the magazine to this day.
Of course, I knew of him before he ever heard of me. In ’55 or ’56, “I Walk the Line” played all summer on the radio, and it was different than anything else you had ever heard. The record sounded like a voice from the middle of the earth. It was so powerful and moving. It was profound, and so was the tone of it, every line; deep and rich, awesome and mysterious all at once. “I Walk the Line” had a monumental presence and a certain type of majesty that was humbling. Even a simple line like “I find it very, very easy to be true” can take your measure. We can remember that and see how far we fall short of it.
Johnny wrote thousands of lines like that. Truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English. I think we can have recollections of him, but we can’t define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty. If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul. This is a miraculous and humbling thing. Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses. He rises high above all, and he’ll never die or be forgotten, even by persons not born yet — especially those persons — and that is forever.
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I met Johnny in 1963 in a restroom in Chicago. I was taking a leak, and he walked up beside me with a flask of wine underneath his coat and said, “Haggard, you want a drink of this wine?” Those were the first words he ever said to me, but I had been in awe of him since I saw him play on New Year’s Day in 1958, at San Quentin Prison, where I was an inmate. He’d lost his voice the night before over in Frisco and wasn’t able to sing very good; I thought he’d had it, but he won over the prisoners. He had the right attitude: He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards — he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan. There were 5,000 inmates in San Quentin and about thirty guitar players; I was among the top five guitarists in there. The day after Johnny’s show, man, every guitar player in San Quentin was after me to teach them how to play like him. It was like how, the day after a Muhammad Ali fight, everybody would be down in the yard shadowboxing; that day, everyone was trying to learn “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Then when my career caught fire, he asked me to be a guest on his variety show on ABC. He, June and I were discussing what I should do on the show, and he said, “Haggard, let me tell the people you’ve been to prison. It’ll be the biggest thing that will happen to you in your life, and the tabloids will never be able to hurt you. It’s called telling the truth: If you start off telling the truth, your fans never forget it.” I told him, “Being an ex-convict is the most shameful thing. It’s against the grain to talk about it.” But he was right — it set a fire under me that hadn’t been there before.
We knew he’d been sick, and we’d thought he was going to die so many times over the last couple years — if you want to get really serious, he’d been near death for decades. Johnny Cash lived in constant, serious pain: On a scale of one to ten, it was somewhere around an eight for the last eight years of his life. He dealt himself some terrible years where he didn’t do the right things. He didn’t eat right, so his bones got brittle; his jaw broke during some dental surgery and never healed. He lived as an example of a man in pain, going from one stage of bad health to another, but he held his head up the whole way. He was like Abraham or Moses — one of the great men who will ever grace the earth. There will never be another Man in Black.
I was his janitor for a year and a half at Columbia Records Studio, and I pitched John every song I ever wrote. He never cut any of them then, but he was always encouraging. He even carried one set of my lyrics around in his wallet, and at the time that was enough for me. Then when he got his television show, it was a really important phase in the development of country music here in Nashville. He brought in a lot of people who weren’t normally in Nashville, like Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Ray Charles. He put me on the show, too, and he recorded my song “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down” and made it Record of the Year. I never had to work another job again.
John was my hero a long time before I ever met him. He represented so much that appealed to me — like freedom. He was willing and able to be the champion of people who didn’t have one. And I think the power of his performance came from the tension between this man who was deeply spiritual and also a real wild man. I can see how rappers would love that “I shot a man in Reno” attitude. But to me, he doesn’t represent danger, he represents integrity. And, Jesus, that’s just what we can’t afford to lose today.
Every man could relate to him, but nobody could be him. To be that extraordinary and that ordinary was his real gift. That, and his humor and his bare-boned honesty. When I visited him at home one time, he said the most beautiful, poetic grace. He said, “Shall we bow our heads?” We all bowed our heads. Then, when he was done, he looked at me and Adam Clayton and said, “Sure miss the drugs, though.” It was just to say, “I haven’t become a holy Joe.” He just couldn’t be self-righteous. I think he was a very godly man, but you had the sense that he had spent his time in the desert. And that just made you like him more. It gave his songs some dust. And that voice was definitely locusts and honey. As for “Hurt,” it’s perhaps the best video ever made.
I was telling somebody just the other day, “We’re all sissies in comparison to Johnny Cash.” And he was a zookeeper, too. Did you know he was nearly killed by an emu on his property? He told me, “That emu damn near killed me. I defended myself with a post.” But he was laughing as he told the story.
So Johnny Cash passed away after seeing off the love of his life. That’s such a different outcome than death by emu. We should be grateful.
When I was elected to congress twenty-seven years ago, my district included Johnny Cash’s home in Hendersonville, twenty-five minutes north of Nashville. Back then, there was only one personal connection, through June Carter Cash, whom my father had known when she was a girl performing with her legendary family on WSM radio.
As I got to know Johnny Cash the man, I loved his music much more — not for the normal reason that you appreciate the work of your friends, but because it was just obvious at close range that what made his songs so great was that the man himself was deep, deep, deep.
He had felt a lot of pain in his life (though he told me a few months ago that the worst pain he ever felt was when he lost June last May). But midway through his life, he found the strength to learn from his mistakes, acknowledge them honestly and transcend them.
And maybe because of what he had gone through, he felt a deep connection to the suffering of others. He was to the left of me on many issues; for example, he was against the death penalty. He cared about social conditions and wanted laws and policies that would help the poor and disadvantaged. You could always tell when he talked about what was going on in America that he cared most of all for those who have a tough row to hoe.
To my ears, his songs have always been beautiful, powerful and moving in a completely original way. In fact, I remember arguing with Rolling Stone’s critic who reviewed Johnny’s last album with what I thought was too-faint praise. His music will grow considerably in stature as time passes. That unusually strong connection between the soul of the artist and the integrity of his art will lift it up and set it apart, and its rare beauty will be more readily recognized, because it draws its power from that shimmering link between song and soul.
(Producer, “American Recordings”)
When June passed away, he became more driven about work. I spoke to him — he was in the hospital room just after June had passed, and he really sounded the worst I’d ever heard him. He said he had suffered a lot of pain in his life, and this was by far the worst he’d ever had to deal with. But the next day he said, “I want to get back into work, and I want to work every day.” He booked a session for three days after June passed away. He said, “I don’t want to do any of the things some people do when they lose their partner — I don’t want to go out and spend a lot of money. I don’t want to meet girls. I don’t want to do anything of this world. I want to make music and do the best work I can. That’s what she would want me to do, and that’s what I want to do.” Some days he’d book a session and he wouldn’t be well enough to sing. Other days, he would go three or four days of singing and take a couple of days off to rest. When he was too ill to leave the house, we would move the equipment into the house and record. The last session that I did, two or three months ago, was in one of the bedrooms. The last six months, we were recording really heavy old blues-based things like “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down” and “John the Revelator.”
He was humble, someone who fought to be ego-less. He strove to be the best he could at all times. And clearly, if you look at his history, he didn’t always succeed. His life is like a tug of war. For the time that I was with him, the last ten years or so, I think he was on the winning side of the rope.
Jerry Lee Lewis
I did my first tour ever with Johnny Cash — way back in 1956. It was me, him and Carl Perkins, a thirty-day tour all the way through Canada, and there weren’t any paved highways or anything, nothing but gravel roads. I remember what a great showman Johnny was. The way he sang was completely different, and he had a whole different style that he created himself.
John, Elvis and them were rockabilly; I was rock & roll. But we all had country in us, which manifested itself in different ways. If you break it all down to the nitty-gritty, we’re all country people. We were called rebels — I guess because we were. Whatever we took a notion to, we just did it. John was religious-thinking, if not always religious-acting. One of the most ridiculous things Johnny and I ever did was steal a television set out of a hotel; there was a little bitty television up on the wall, and we got it off. Johnny wanted it for his wife; I helped him get it, because I didn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t have it.
I hope when his heart quit beatin’ that he was ready to meet his Maker. I don’t know if he was; I’m not the judge. He was a man of faith, which I think should help. I just hope he made it through the gates.
Merle and I have been touring together all summer, and the first show was the first annual Merle Haggard UFO Music Fest, in Roswell, New Mexico. You’ll be happy to know that Johnny Cash went to heaven with a commemorative Merle Haggard UFO Music Fest guitar pick. John would’ve appreciated the gesture — most people didn’t know that side of him. Every December, he and I would go to the graveyard to visit Luther [Perkins, Cash’s original guitarist] and bring him a cigarette. We would lay down on the grave, smoke and talk to Luther, telling him what a lazy son of a bitch he was for lying there while we were out touring, killing ourselves to promote him.
When I was in John’s band during the Eighties, we were down to playing Branson, Missouri-type shows for elderly people. Nashville was done with him. Instead of giving him the respect he deserved, they treated him like a fossil. But with the American Recordings album, his career had a rebirth just by him doing what the fuck he wanted to do. He had a brand-new audience, which put wind in his sail. He wasn’t having to do his old patriotic Johnny Cash tricks for a bunch of older Americans; it was kids with tattoos and weird hair trying to find their way.
I don’t think he was scared of things. I don’t think he was scared of death or illness — he’d been through all that. I saw him have to go to the Betty Ford clinic after a farm animal punctured his stomach. He went back on painkillers, and with us addicts, all it takes is one pill to set us back. But I think he was scared most of losing people — he lost his mom, his dad, his wife — and of the dark force of Satan. John fully understood the power of the dark force. He’d be on his knees with a Bible in his hands, trying to cope with his demons. He believed what he read in the Bible and tried to practice it.
I was doing a show with Neil Young
in Nashville just after Johnny died. Before the show, Neil was telling me how sorry he was about Johnny. And at the end of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” Neil played “Taps” on the guitar. It was beautiful.
John seemed so completely American — if I might say that in a time of such turmoil that I’m not sure we know who we are as a people. He seemed to be the voice of truth in everything he did. There was nothing unnatural about John Cash — this was not an act. He rose to the occasion on The Man Comes Around in a way that was astonishing. And the video they made of “Hurt” puts all those bare-navel, soft-porn videos to shame. It shows videos can actually have a profound effect on us, and it took Johnny Cash to once again show that. It’s come full circle, because when he first came on the scene with that power, he was all that rock & roll could be.
(Video director, “Hurt” )
The sadness in the video is genuine — Johnny said that “Hurt” was the best anti-drug song he’d ever heard. The rage you see when he pours the wine on the table or starts to weep is a direct result of having lost people to addictions — and almost having lost himself. But he was playing a role. On set, when we yelled, “Cut,” a very different, very funny, much more energetic Johnny Cash emerged. When we were shooting the piano scene, he said, “Maybe you want June to dance naked on the piano there.” June said, “Oh, John!” and the crew broke up. He was playful with June — the degree to which they were in love with each other was palpable after all these years. Johnny was also extremely generous — he autographed about thirty-five vinyl copies of The Man Comes Around as a parting gift to the crew, who were in awe. That had never been done by any of the forty artists I’ve worked with.
I sang at John’s funeral, and I cannot lie: It was very hard. There was a real sense we had turned a corner. Because there can never be another Johnny Cash. I grew up in a place where people were very God-fearing, land-loving, and John represented the salt of the earth to me. He spoke for every man and personified the human struggles that we all go through. He was almost biblical, because he walked this earth and experienced all a man could suffer. Yet he still rose up out of the ashes with this great strength and gave voice to that strength for all of us.
Johnny Cash was one of the few
people who wrote me when I was locked up — he sent me a very encouraging letter saying how everybody was pulling for me, that he and June were praying for me and that he would see me when I got out. I saw him again when I helped put together the band for his song on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. When I got to the studio, nobody was there but John and the engineer. I walk in and there’s this old-fashioned picnic basket sitting in the middle of the pool table — you know, gingham tablecloth, the whole bit. John’s got his hand in that picnic basket, and he looks up and says, “Steve, would you like a piece of tenderloin on a biscuit that June made this morning?” I was really hungry, so I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “I knew you would.” We could’ve talked about our shared demons — I’d been clean probably a year and a half — but he knew that sometimes it’s better to leave some things private and just talk about tenderloin and biscuits.
The first time I met John was in 1982. I was with Nick Lowe, who was his son-in-law at the time, and we were in Nashville. John invited us to have a meal at his place out on the lake. We arrived, but we were disappointed, because John had taken ill that morning and had gone to the hospital with pneumonia — him and June. But the meal was still going to go on. We sat at this long, elaborately set table. Just as the meal was about to begin, someone said, “Tom, John’s on the phone and would like to talk to you.” So I went to the phone, and we talked for, God, about half an hour. Then after dinner, he and June spoke to every single guest by phone as they left the house and asked if they had a good time.
When John came out to Los Angeles to make Unchained, me and the Heartbreakers kind of became his band. I still view that as the best work we ever did. One of my favorite stories is being at this studio in downtown Hollywood — which is kind of a weird neighborhood — when John came in with June. He was laughing, so I said, “Hey, where you been?” He said, “June and I thought it would be fun to just sit on that bus bench across the street for a while. I met the most interesting people over there.” I said, “You’re kidding me.” I was trying to picture the look on these people’s faces as they came to wait for the bus, and there’s Johnny and June. This guy was friends with presidents, and he was friends with people at the bus stop.
Reporting by Anthony DeCurtis, Matt Diehl, Austin Scaggs and David Wild
[From Issue 933 — October 16, 2003]