In this month’s issue of Uncut , we bring you the inside story on the House Of Johny Cash. We spoke to his family, friends and collaborators to tell the definitive story of the Man In Black. Over the next few weeks on uncut.co.uk, we’ll be printing the complete transcripts of these interviews.
And here’s the second one: Rodney Crowell
Houston, Texas born country singer songwriter, and one-time husband of Rosanna Cash, a nervous Crowell asked Cash to sing on 2001’s “I Walk The Line Revisited”. “It was like getting Da Vinci to paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa,” he recalled.
UNCUT: When did you first meet Cash?
CROWELL: At the Beverley Hills Hotel when I was dating his daughter. Went to dinner in the Bungalow, just me and her and John and June. You can imagine – I was 27 years old. It was just a delightful dinner. And they treated me like royalty. They were just so charming. John and June were world-class charming human beings. I was a couple of feet off the ground. The next time, Rosanne and I were living together. John didn’t smile on that. He thought that was not right. So we received a summons – airline tickets to their sugar plantation down there [in Jamaica]. So I got drunk all the way. I drank bloody Marys to Miami and then switched to rum going down to Montego Bay, and then when we got there I was really way up in my cups. There was a confrontation between John and Rosanne about sleeping arrangements, so I with drunken bravura I cut into the conversation. I said, you know I’d be a hypocrite if I changed my lifestyle – trying to be a puffed-up man and hold my own with [chuckle] one of the world class icons – and he kind of looked at me, and he said: “Son. I don’t know you well enough to miss you if you were gone.” He dismissed me in a heartbeat. Which instantly sobered me. And from that point on… he made a friend for life with me, because he just showed me what real strength is.
It must have been intimidating – these presumably are your musical heroes.
Certainly the second meeting was extremely intimidating. The first one was more a dream sequence. Just a really delightful dinner for four. A fireside dinner at the Bev Hills Hotel,. And for me, just getting my legs under me in the music business, it was huge.
Is JC somebody that, when you were bumming around with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, was up in the pantheon for you?
Yeah. Going way back. In Nashville in that day when Guy and Townes were two steps above the street, and the rest of us were still scrapping on the street, John with his compound out on the lake was the top of the ladder. I remember, Guy had a small house across the lake and his next door neighbour had a boat, and we’d be out there on a full moon night in the boat, putting by over the cove where John’s big house was. Looking at it, going ‘God! That’s pretty cool.’ Roy Orbison was next door.
You have this song, “The First Time I Heard Johnny Cash Sing I Walk The Line”/ I’ve heard you read the memoir of it – the way you describe his voice sounding like Abraham Lincoln looked – what did you mean?
It’s just that kind of gravitas. Deep gravitas. And also that iconic sense – that you could have his bust on Mt Rushmore. Put him and Dylan and Chuck Berry and Merle Haggard and Hank Williams up there.
Is the song literally true, that when you first heard “I Walk The Line” you were transported?
Yeah – well, I was trying to capture the poetry of the moment in the way I wrote that. But I think that when that particular experience was through with me – I mean, given my parents and my life, chances are I’d have been a songwriter – but hearing that when I was 5 years old and going that far away, it sort of sealed the deal.
Did you ever work together? I presume his vocal is dubbed onto that record.
Yeah it was dubbed on. I helped in the studio. I produced a record with him and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. A live record. It was recorded in Germany.
What was it like working with him?
Great. It was funny. My favourite thing about John was his wicked sense of humour. He was a kid. Whenever he suited up and was the Man In Black he was an imposing figure – this worldwide icon, but relaxed and away from that he was a prankster. He was a funny kid. And he really indulged his childish self. It was fun.
Did you consider him to be a genius?
Well you know that word is… that’s a tricky word. How do you define it? I think a song like “How High’s The Water Mamma”, that’s Faulkner. That’s genius. Or “I Walk The Line”, “I Still Miss Someone”, or “Big River”. There’s a poetic genius, for sure. I think the genius lies in being an elevated everyman. You don’t get to that place if you’re not somehow touched with that extra bit of charisma. And as my friend Stuart Smith would always say, he was a body language genius. We used to tour with him and we would open, and I remember doing this show at the Albert Hall, and my band would open, and we’re standing watching him from that little door by the stage, and Stuart turned to me and he said “There is no greater body language than that man on stage.”
Just from the way he stood?
Yeah – just you know, hey, I’m comfortable here. Like his most comfortable chair was on that stage, standing up singing for people.
This phrase you used – elevated everyman – it is a difficult position to be celebrated for being apparently like everybody else. And being above it.
It’s hard to do. It’s hard to be in both places at once. And I think he paid a price for it. He died a young man. He wore himself out doing it. He lived hard.
Was he conflicted about the responsibilities of that?
No I don’t think so. I think he was really comfortable. He was more conflicted about his own personal demons, that he struggled with. There was a part of John that I was aware of: he had currents swimming in two different directions. He struggled with drugs, most of his life. There was always that clean-up time, which he really had, where he had that really big turnaround with June, but he still struggled later on.
What was at the root of the drug problem? Was it a recreational thing that spiralled?
No. It was like he survived what Elvis didn’t survive. I talked to him about this. You know, when they came of age and they were out there, and those guys were making records and going on the road and trying to keep their schedule together, and somebody handed him amphetamines. And if you’re pre-disposed toward chemical dependency – we talked about this – they handed those guys the hard stuff from the get-go. At least when I came up people were handing you a beer and a joint. It was a gentler entry into that world. For those guys coming up in the Fifties – the Everlys and all of those guys – they handed them amphetamines, which is basically like plugging yourself into the light fixture. And scientifically there are those who are pre-disposed to struggle with introducing chemicals to the body. And you’re in for a long bout with that: amphetamines are rough. When you’re flying on it it’s like you can conquer the world, but coming down off it’s a really hard crash.
Is there one story which sums up what you think of John?
The one I told you about being drunk out of my mind and insinuating I was going to have my way with his daughter. He put me in my place with world class resolve. But there’s also another personal memory I have – that we were in the cabin that he and June had on their property, and he had a hammock on the front of it. Somebody had a video camera, and John was just laying in the hammock, just kind of swinging idly, really relaxed. And someone handed me the camera and said: shoot dad. So I put the camera on him, and I watched this relaxed man, this patriarch lying in a hammock, become Johnny Cash, through the camera. And it was so powerful. It was almost like this transformation. It wasn’t a Jekyll and Hyde thing, it was just ‘oh, the camera’s on’, and whenever it was time to go to work, even if it was just for a home movie, he became that icon. I just watched that icon inhabit that body. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Good God, it’s so strong.’
Was that a conscious thing with him?
No. I think he probably called on it consciously when he needed to. But this particular time, it was just the instinct of, ‘Oh, the camera, it’s on me, I’m who I am,’ and pfff, there it is! Going from just lying in a hammock enjoying a summer’s day. It was really profound, to be looking through a camera lens and see it. So I can imagine, a photographer, lurking – like Alan Messer shot Johnny Cash a lot – and we had this conversation, because he shot my new album cover and I told him that story and he said, oh yeah it was always that way whenever we would start to shoot. He said he would snap, take the picture, and the legend would assume itself right before his eyes.
You compared him to Will Rogers once – what did you mean?
It’s what we already talked about – the elevated everyman. It’s like the everyman as poet, you know? As a poet, Will Rogers just had this natural conversational style. Will Rogers was a pundit, really, in a way. And John had that same kind of comfortable everyman – but the difference between him and the common man was his poetic brilliance. He was really a poet. At the end of the day, Johnny Cash was a poet.
INTERVIEW: ALASTAIR McKAY