Books

10.26.13

Excerpts From a New Johnny Cash Biography Capture His Iconoclastic Genius

Robert Hilburn’s vivid new biography, ‘Johnny Cash: The Life,’ provides a piercing look at a man besieged by the demons of addiction but steadied by Christian faith and an abiding love of music. Read excerpts from two crucial moments in Cash’s saga.

Robert Hilburn’s vivid new biography,  Johnny Cash: The Life, thoroughly examines all aspects of the performer’s life, from his start in the Arkansas cotton fields to his late-life renaissance working with producer Rick Rubin. But Hilburn is particularly canny when it comes to Cash’s genius for slipping in and out of musical categories. He was not exactly a country singer, but not really in the rock ‘n’ roll camp either. Nor was he a straightforward folk or gospel singer, although he excelled in those genres. At every turn, Hilburn ably conveys the impossibility of pigeonholing this unique artist, but two moments, excerpted below, stand out: when Cash wrote and recorded ‘I Walk the Line’ and when he performed for the inmates at San Quentin.

1956

Gladewater and Longview would be just two more names on the list of the hundreds of towns in which Cash performed over five decades—except that he most likely wrote “I Walk the Line” in one of the two neighboring East Texas locales. Cash usually said Gladewater; Marshall Grant [Cash’s bass player] always claimed it was Longview. There was even sharp disagreement over the distinctive hum at the start of the record. John himself had two explanations. Usually he said it was inspired by a haunting sound he’d heard one time when he accidentally played a tape backward on the reel-to-reel recorder he bought in Germany. But he also spoke of having wanted to open a record with a hum ever since childhood, when he’d delighted in the way the town doctor always went around humming. Grant thought the humming was simply designed to help Luther get the right feel on the song.

“I Walk the Line” is a heartfelt, straightforward love song in the tradition of Jimmie Davis’s “You Are My Sunshine” or Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” And as usual, Cash’s authoritative vocal made the declaration all the more human and believable:

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.
I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds.
Because you’re mine I walk the line.

I find it very, very easy to be true.
I find myself alone when each day is through.
Yes, I’ll admit that I’m a fool for you.
Because you’re mine I walk the line.

As sure as night is dark and day is light,
I keep you on my mind both day and night.
And happiness I’ve known proves that it’s right.
Because you’re mine I walk the line.

You’ve got a way to keep me on your side.
You give me cause for love that I can’t hide.
For you I know I’d even try to turn the tide.
Because you’re mine I walk the line.

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.
I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds.
Because you’re mine I walk the line.

While it was undeniably inspired by his love for Vivian, Cash sometimes spoke of a second meaning. Though he never confronted Phillips about it, Cash missed his gospel side, and he designed “I Walk the Line” as an expression of spiritual as well as romantic allegiance.

In his 1975 autobiography, Man in Black, Cash pointed out that he was intending to “say” something in the song, writing lyrics “that will have a lot of meaning not only for me, but for everybody who hears it—that says I’m going to be true not only to those who believe in me and depend on me, but to myself and God—a song that might give courage to others as well as myself.” During an interview just months before his death, he smiled and told me, “Sam [Phillips, Sun Records’s owner] never knew it, but ‘I Walk the Line’ was my first gospel hit.”

Cash recalled Phillips being more excited about “I Walk the Line” than any other song he had brought him. That’s one of the things Cash loved about Phillips—his enthusiasm. “He was excitable, not at all laid-back,” Cash said. “When we’d put something on tape he liked, he’d come bursting out of the control room into the studio, laughing and clapping his hands, yelling and hollering, ‘That was great! That was wonderful!’”

Once again, however, Phillips thought the arrangement was too slow and mournful. As always, he wanted a more lively rhythm.

“Do me a favor,” he told Cash. “Just do one more take for me, and let’s move the tempo up quite a bit.”

Cash didn’t like what he heard. This song was his baby. He wanted the record to reflect the tender sentiments he felt.

“We don’t want to make a rock ’n’ roll song out of this,” he told Phillips. “I wrote this song for my wife and I want to keep it as a real slow ballad.”

Phillips tried to soothe Cash.

“I don’t have a problem with that, John,” he said. “I just want to hear it one time for my own personal view. Just move the tempo up to a good flow and record it for me just one time.”

Cash obliged, but he left the studio believing that Phillips would release the original, slow version.

Even before “I Walk the Line,” Cash had heard Phillips talk about the importance of rhythm in a record so often that he thought it would be funny to write a song that was, in essence, all about rhythm. He came up with the story line from watching an energetic shoeshine boy at work. By the time he finished the song, which he called “Get Rhythm,” Cash really liked it. It wasn’t just a throwaway after all. He wasn’t sure the song was right for him because it edged closer to rock than anything he had done previously, but Phillips liked it and put it on the flip side of the “I Walk the Line” single.

Cash heard “I Walk the Line” on the radio for the first time when he was in Shreveport for the Louisiana Hayride—and he was shocked. It wasn’t the slow version that he’d wanted; it was the slightly faster recording that Phillips had coaxed him into doing. Cash confronted Phillips as soon as he got back to Memphis. Sam explained that he’d released the faster version only because he’d played it for some of his DJ friends and they all liked that version better.

“Give me just two weeks,” he said. “If it doesn’t do what I think it’s going to do, I promise you right here, I’ll pull the record and we’ll release the slow ballad.”

Cash was reluctant, but he agreed.

After those two weeks, the record was a smash, and Cash rarely mentioned the slow version again.

Typical of the country music industry’s reaction to “I Walk the Line” was Billboard’s glowing review: “‘Mr. Folsom Prison Blues’ has a top-notch pairing on this wax. First, he generates a load of excitement with his special kind of melancholy sound on a superior piece of slow-paced ‘love and devotion’ material. On the flip, there’s a wonderful swinging blues job with the great ‘down’ guitar trademark.”

Phillips must have been feeling invincible by then. His Sun discoveries were dominating Billboard’s national country sales chart in early May 1956. Elvis Presley was at number one with “Heartbreak Hotel,” his formal RCA debut, followed by Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes” at number two, Elvis’s “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” which had been Presley’s last Sun single before he went to RCA, at number three, and “Folsom Prison Blues” at number six. Take that, Nashville! Even more spectacularly, “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Blue Suede Shoes” were number one and number three, respectively, on the list of national pop best-sellers. Take that, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles! To add to the celebration around Sun Records, Billboard also had lavish praise for the label’s first Roy Orbison single. The young Texan had been steered to Phillips after Orbison met Cash in Odessa, Texas, and asked for some career advice.

To celebrate their good fortune, Phillips and Bob Neal took out two ads in the May 12 issue of Billboard. In the first, they showcased “Blue Suede Shoes” in the top half and Cash’s new record in the bottom half. Alongside Cash’s photo, the copy read, “Another two-sider by one of the truly great talent finds.” Perkins, who was signed just before Cash, may have been outselling Cash at the moment, but Phillips still saw Cash as his special talent. Elsewhere in the same issue, Phillips and Neal celebrated their new Stars, Inc. joint venture with photos of their growing roster.

That ad further aligned Sun and Stars, Inc.—and, in turn, Cash—with rock ’n’ roll. Above photos of Perkins, Cash, Warren Smith, Eddie Bond, Orbison, and Jack Earls, the ad proclaimed boldly, “These are the biggest drawing stars in the rock ’n’ roll business.” This early marketing of Cash to the rock market would prove to be of major significance in his career. Even if he had made the same records in Nashville, he might simply have been viewed as another hillbilly star—like Webb Pierce or Ray Price. But his ties to Elvis and Phillips and Sun Records would forever give Cash credibility in the wider, more culturally important rock ’n’ roll market.

1969

On the day after the Dylan session [an impromptu recording session in Nashville with just Cash and Bob Dylan], Cash got a phone call from Don Davis, a music publisher and two-time husband of Anita Carter. Davis, who had earlier tipped him off to “Jackson,” told Cash he had a song that would be a natural for him. It was written by Playboy cartoonist and songwriter Shel Silverstein, whose earlier parody, “25 Minutes to Go,” was a highlight of the [Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison] album.

Cash got a kick out of the zany tune about a father’s odd way of teaching his son to stand up for himself, and he promised to record “A Boy Named Sue” as soon as he got back from the West Coast. But June placed a copy of Silverstein’s song in a stack of material John was taking with him on the trip—on the outside chance he’d want to use it in the prison show [he was scheduled to perform at San Quentin in February 1969].

San Quentin was just two days away when Cash met with the Granada TV representatives before a concert in San Diego, the second stop on the tour. Only vaguely aware of their plans for the documentary, Cash had been approaching San Quentin as just another show date, which meant his regular set list. When the Granada team of director Michael Darlow and producer Jo Durden-Smith asked him to write a song to commemorate the occasion, Cash was cool to the idea. Afterward, however, he began to think about the prison concert more seriously. Over the next forty-eight hours, he did what he did best—tried to find common ground with his audience by looking at the world through their eyes.

Because of his past San Quentin visits, Cash knew that the prison, just across the bay from San Francisco, was a much tougher environment than Folsom; it housed the state’s only death row for men. Security would be far more intense. After the planning meeting, he started focusing on San Quentin’s menacing reputation and he began to imagine the rage he sensed in the men—and the anger he sometimes felt in himself.

By the time he stepped on the stage on the night of February 24, he had written two songs. One was based on his arrest for public intoxication in Starkville, Mississippi, in May 1965; the other was a more important reflection on pent-up rage. He was again a man with a mission, and he did try to echo Folsom in one sense. He was brought a song by an inmate—a wistful tune titled “I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound” by someone identified on the record only as T. Cuttie. It was an undistinguished number, yet Cash was seduced once again by the idea of redemption, and he vowed to find a place for it in the show.

Cash was still fiddling with the set order when [record producer Bob] Johnston told him not to worry about it and just concentrate on his performance. They could put together the album set list in the studio just as they had done with the Folsom album; the order he played the songs in didn’t matter. Even as he was about to go onstage, nothing was set in concrete except that he wanted to bunch the new songs together near the end of the show.

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” he said to the 1,400 convicts, repeating what had become his standard greeting on tour. He opened with two of his favorites, “Big River” and “I Still Miss Someone,” followed by “Wreck of the Old 97” and some other concert staples before getting to the first prison-related number, “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Much to the delight of the crowd, he brought June onstage to do “Jackson” and “Darling Companion,” a John Sebastian song they had learned from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. It was a half hour into the show when Cash played “I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound” after announcing that the song had been written by a San Quentin inmate. The response was enthusiastic, but it didn’t match the outpouring for “Greystone Chapel” at Folsom.

Cash then unveiled his two new songs. In “Starkville City Jail,” he made fun of an overly aggressive police force, but “San Quentin” was his trump card.

“I was thinking about you guys yesterday,” Cash told the convicts, suddenly serious. “I’ve been here three times before, and I think I understand a little how you feel about some things.”

The inmates listened attentively.

“It’s none of my business how you feel about some other things, and I don’t give a damn about how you feel about some other things. I tried to put myself in your place, and this is how I think I’d feel about San Quentin.”

Not knowing what to expect, the convicts were startled by the venom of the song’s opening lines: San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me.

The audience let loose a chilling roar of brotherhood.

You’ve hosted me since nineteen sixty-three.
I’ve seen ’em come and go and I’ve seen ’em die
And long ago I stopped askin’ why,
San Quentin, I hate every inch of you.

Again, a monstrous howl.

You’ve cut me and you’ve scarred me thru an’ thru.
And I’ll walk out a wiser, weaker man;
Mister Congressman, why can’t you understand?

The number went on for nearly four minutes, and the tension in the room grew with each passing line. When Cash spat out “San Quentin may you rot and burn in hell,” he could sense the crowd wanting more, and he played the song again, as Johnston had requested he do to make sure they had a solid version on tape.

Johnston was struck by the drama of the moment.

“All the guards were nervous. They thought there was going to be a riot.” He says Cash felt an immense power when the prisoners got off their benches and, against show rules, stood on the tables and cheered. Adds Johnston, “He realized that all he had to say was, ‘Let’s go!’ and there would have been a full-scale riot. He told me after, ‘I was tempted.’”

Cash instead lightened the mood by playing “Wanted Man,” a minor song he wrote with Bob Dylan that boasted of an outlaw’s rambling ways, very much inspired by Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” It even included a sly nod to being “sidetracked in Juárez.”

Pleased with the two versions of “San Quentin,” Cash took a breather while Carl Perkins entertained the crowd. During the break, he reached into his briefcase and pulled out the lyrics to Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue.” It was likely a spontaneous move, because no one in the band or on the Granada production team knew that he planned to do the song. After Perkins ended his song, Cash put the lyrics on a stand and asked the musicians to make up some music to accompany him.

It took a good thirty seconds for Perkins and the others to hook into a groove, but it finally came together deftly, and the San Quentin convicts began howling with laughter. Cash followed “Sue” with another twenty minutes of music, but he and Johnston both knew they had the heart of the album in the snarling, tightly woven “San Quentin” and this crazy novelty tune, “A Boy Named Sue.”

As Cash headed on to the next tour stop, Johnston flew back to Nashville to begin putting the album together, and the Granada TV crew returned to London to work on the documentary. Everyone agreed on one thing: they had another winner.

Copyright 2013 by Robert Hilburn. Published with permission of Little, Brown and Co.