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Magazine features

Despatches from Cash country

interior-cashPublished in The Age on March 21, 2014.

In the decade since her father passed away, Rosanne Cash has become practiced at saying “no” to people who want to hitch a ride on his legend. Men who write songs about Johnny Cash and ask her to record them, or make films and ask for family photos. Fans that share their stories uninvited and expect hers in return, then ask if she plans to come to Jesus, so she can join her dad in heaven. The answer is no. It can be trying, being heir to a myth.

“I learned how to be polite, to draw a line, close the curtain and move on,” she told me, the first time we met, eight years ago. “I became very disciplined about who I let rummage around in my feelings.”

Of the endless requests, the only proposal that intrigued her came from a team at Arkansas State University that wanted to restore the cottage where her dad grew up, in Dyess. “It didn’t have to do with his fame or his iconic status, or burnishing the golden idol,” Cash says. “It would have been important to him. And I thought it would be important to my kids.”

She agreed to take part, and soon realised that she had hit upon a source of inspiration. Together with her husband, producer and musical virtuoso John Leventhal, she used Dyess as a starting point for a series of trips along Highway 61 and down the Mississippi Delta. Her new album, The River And The Thread, is a journey into memory, through the South she left behind.

They visited her dad’s bass player, Marshall Grant, and wrote a song for his wife called Etta’s Tune. A sign advertising a Memphis radio station sparked another idea about “50,000 watts of common prayer” broadcast over the airwaves.

The most moving song, The Sunken Lands, is set in the cotton fields where her ancestors toiled to make good on their New Deal opportunity: a patch of poor soil, mortgaged from the government. “It was the template for everything that came afterwards: work ethic, appreciation for what you have, pride in what they had done,” she says. “Some families gave up. They didn’t give up.”

On Man In Black, Johnny Cash sang: “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down/Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.” As with many of his stories, it was half true – he first chose black clothes because they needed to be washed less frequently on tour – but the empathy was heartfelt. The characters in his songs have been dealt a rough hand and play it without complaint.

Cash defied genre, thanks to his start at Sun Records, alongside Elvis, and later, his identification with Bob Dylan and the folk movement. His range was astonishing, from murder ballads to prayers to novelty songs, all delivered with absolute conviction. He could be a penitent sinner, a faithless lover, a killer or a comedian, and because his faith was genuine, because he knew how it felt to be out of control, high on pills and in trouble with the law, he could invest each role with the violence or regret it required.

His concerts at Folsom and San Quentin prisons lent him an outlaw cool – the photo of him snarling at the camera at San Quentin, middle finger raised, is definitive – but he also viewed performing at the White House as a career highlight. On one record, Bitter Tears, he described the Native American genocide. On another, Ragged Old Flag, he saluted the Star-Spangled Banner. In the words of his friend Kris Kristofferson, he was “a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.” It stands to reason that his legacy is sprawling, and slippery too.

Its chief custodian is John Carter Cash, the only child of his second marriage, to June Carter. An author and producer, most recently of a novel, Lupus Rex, and an album by Loretta Lynn, he also runs the Cash Cabin studio. “I think I’d lose my mind, if it was all about Johnny Cash,” he says.

When Cash and Carter died within five months of each other in 2003, it fell to him to sort through the tapes. Because Cash never threw anything away and never stopped recording, keeping up with the compilations and re-releases can be overwhelming: there were nine repackaged Johnny Cash records last year, twenty-six the year before.

The latest legacy project is a previously unreleased LP, Out Among The Stars, that Cash recorded in the early 1980s with producer Billy Sherrill, known for putting a slick, urban sheen on the Nashville sound. They first worked together on an album called The Baron and an unfunny novelty song, The Chicken In Black, that Rosanne Cash calls “the nadir” of her father’s career. The attempt to convince a younger audience that Cash was still relevant didn’t work. The album was shelved and Cash was dropped.

It’s hard to overstate how far Cash had fallen. His record sales had collapsed. His old friend Grant sued him for unpaid royalties. Worse, he was back on the pills. “I was up and running, strung out, slowed down, sped up, turned around, hung on the hook, having a ball, living in hell,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The idea of taking things to their logical conclusion, just drugging and drinking until I slipped all the way out of this world, began to dance quietly around the back of my mind.”

After a bout of pneumonia in early 1983, Cash was attacked by an ostrich while out walking and suffered five broken ribs. A few months later, he was taken to Baptist Hospital with a broken hand and a bleeding ulcer. Surgeons discovered more problems and removed his spleen. During his recovery, he nearly overdosed when Valium he had hidden under his bandages began to dissolve into his wound. Friends flew him to the Betty Ford clinic to clean up.

There are only two Cash compositions on Out Among The Stars. The best of them, I Came To Believe, is a gospel number that he wrote at the clinic. Cash struggled with addiction to painkillers for the rest of his life, but his son insists that at the sessions with Sherrill, he was straight: “He was focused, strong, and true… His voice was beautiful. We barely had to touch it. His spirit was there.”

The obvious question is whether the world needs another Johnny Cash album. “If you went to your vault and discovered a Picasso that no-one had ever seen, what would you do?” Carter Cash asks. He has reworked a guitar line here, added a flourish of mandolin there, some percussion, a little organ. “Hopefully the listener will find it seamless,” he says.

Baby Ride Easy is a duet with Carter that was a regular feature of live performances. She Used To Love Me A Lot anticipates the grave delivery of American Recordings, the comeback album he made with Rick Rubin a decade later. There are country standards, some rock’n’roll, a comedy song and a paean to Tennessee. The record can’t compare to Cash’s best work, either at Sun, his 1960s concept albums and prison concerts or his 1990s resurgence, but for diehard fans, it will be more than a curio.

Out Among The Stars documents a strange moment in Cash’s career, when it became clear that he had been supplanted by his daughter. Rosanne’s breakthrough record, Seven Year Ache, had been released two years earlier, and she was hard at work on Rhythm and Romance, the album that would establish her as a songwriter. Her records were selling seven figures, while his struggled to reach five.

“It wasn’t difficult for us in our relationship,” she says. “It was difficult for me, because I felt bad for him and really angry at Columbia. I’m sure in some ways it was difficult for my dad, but it was complicated because he was really proud of me and made no bones about showing it.”

When she ran up against the Nashville establishment herself, after penning a stark, introspective album called Interiors that her label didn’t want, her father’s advice was simple: “Screw ‘em.” Follow your instincts, don’t compromise, leave if you have to. These days, she defies genre too. The River and the Thread doesn’t get played on country radio, but it has been at the top of the Americana airplay chart – “roots music that’s not part of the commercial country juggernaut” – ever since it was released.

Cash resents the fact that, in articles like this one, she is inevitably discussed in the context of her father’s career, rather than as an artist in her own right. It provokes the only flash of anger in an otherwise friendly conversation: “Why do you have to link me with my dad? I’m fifty-eight fucking years old.” Which is fair enough: it must be maddening. But at some point, she apparently decided ‘if you can’t beat ‘em…’ Her previous album, The List, was a set of country songs that her father considered essential.

When Columbia wrote off Out Among The Stars and dropped Johnny Cash, most people assumed he was finished. It took Rubin, a heavy metal and hip-hop producer, to revive his career, simply by asking him to delve into the incredible treasury of songs that he carried around in his head. He could play them all – spirituals, Appalachian folk songs, western ballads, rockabilly and country blues – and the history flowed through him as the tape rolled.

On the walls of Rosanne’s New York home, there’s a sepia print of her great uncles, passed down from her grandfather to her father. The inscription reads “Respect. I love the name of Cash.” It can be a burden, no doubt, but it is also a magnificent inheritance: no less than country music itself.