Johnny Cash Changes His Tune—Form a Boy Named Sue to a Saint Named Paul
The face is scarred and craggy like a strip-mined Appalachian mountainside. The eyes are dark and somber. So, too, are the old-fashioned suits and string ties that Johnny Cash wears onstage as homage to his longtime hero, rough-hewn, plain-speaking Andrew Jackson. Then there’s the deep, rumbling voice that would rather converse with God or the dogwoods than almost anybody else. When Cash does sit down to talk, there are long silences and faraway glances. “I’m a country boy, still,” says the Arkansas farmer’s son. “I’m a very shy and private man, but don’t get me wrong: I can make it real good on a stage with 20,000 people out there. I like performing.”
As his friend Kris Kristofferson has noted, Cash is a “walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.” The simple country boy who grew up on hellfire and brimstone sermons is a deeply religious Baptist. At 54, he’s also a slick multimillionaire, entertainer, author and singer of such Country & Western classics as A Boy Named Sue, Ring of Fire and I Walk the Line. Nor has Cash confined his writing to music. His 1975 autobiography, Man in Black, sold 250,000 copies and revealed the dark side of this complex, God-fearing man. “I used to like to do a lot of bad things,” admits Johnny, whose troubled past includes boozy, violence-filled years of addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates.
Freed from his drug-popping blues, a clean, clear-headed Cash has completed a book that he has been working on for nearly 10 years. Man in White (Harper & Row, $13.95) is a novel about the times and adventures of Saul of Tarsus, the devout Jew who became the apostle Saint Paul. “I got excited about him,” explains Cash, who has long been fascinated with Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. “It started coming to me what this man was up against—to take the gospel of Jesus Christ into a world that already had more gods than they needed, or could even remember. It was a very, very tough selling job.”
Getting his own message across, Johnny hopes, will be easier. On a recent five-city book tour he tucked away his shyness in the saddlebags he once used to carry around the pages of his novel. “I think maybe some Christians will like it, and I hope some people who are not religious will like it, too, and find out more about Jesus Christ,” says Cash. “It has its moments. I’m satisfied with it, but that don’t make me no novelist.” That may be, but reviewers have been kind. The Nashville Tennessean called the book “well-paced…timely and welcome in this age of electronic evangelism.”
Though another sometime author, Jimmy Carter, urged Cash to try a word processor, purist Johnny preferred yellow legal pads and a pen. Writing on buses and in hotel rooms, he found he did his best work in the log cabin he owns on the grounds of his 175-acre estate in Hendersonville, 15 miles north of Nashville. Walking through the groves of hickory trees one day in 1982, mulling over the life of Saint Paul, Cash ran into the ostrich who lives in the wildlife preserve on his property. Fearing the bird was hostile, Cash waved a stick at it. In response, the ostrich started to charge. Cash bellowed something (definitely not biblical) and the creature darted away. A little later the two met again, and this time the ostrich leapt into the air and slammed its taloned feet against Cash’s chest. It then began clawing Johnny and was stopped only by his heavy metal belt buckle. Cash ended up with five broken ribs.
As a young boy in the town of Dyess, Ark. (pop. 446), John (as he was then called) used to wander dreamily through the woods—and was considerably luckier in dealing with nature. The fourth of seven children born to a cotton farmer and his wife, Cash carried water to the older members of the family as they worked “from can to can’t.” (From the time you can see, as they say in Arkansas, until the time you can’t.) By age 10, he was picking cotton—although not too effectively. “It seemed like Daddy was always having to tell him to get with the work,” recalls his younger sister Reba, “because he was staring off at a bird or an airplane or just leaning on his hoe.” When the family finally got a battery-powered radio from the Sears catalog, John liked to hum along, and he told everybody he’d be a singer someday.
It wasn’t until Cash joined the Air Force in 1950 that he learned to pick a guitar. Stationed in West Germany, where he typed coded radio messages, the once straitlaced choirboy learned to cuss and drink. After his discharge four years later, he married Vivian Liberto, a San Antonio girl who had been his pen pal when he was in the service. The couple settled in Memphis, where Cash sold appliances and went to broadcasting school on the GI Bill. He picked up small singing jobs and in 1955 appeared with Elvis Presley at the Louisiana Hayride, a Shreveport version of the Grand Ole Opry. The exposure helped him win a Columbia record deal and big-time gigs on the Country & Western circuit.
He and Vivian soon had four daughters. (Rosanne, now 31, is a C&W star in her own right; Kathy, 30, works in her father’s office; Cindy, 28, is a barber and makeup artist, and Tara, 25, runs a film production office.) Leaving the child-rearing to his wife, Johnny went touring with his guitar. Soon he was washing down uppers and downers with alcohol to survive the grueling life on the road and by 1959 was pretty well hooked. Over the next seven years, he wrecked every car he owned, sank two boats and leapt from a truck just before it plunged over a 600-foot cliff. Careening wildly across the deserts at night, he was jailed several times for drunk and disorderly conduct. Considering it beneath his dignity to buy dope from pushers, he nevertheless resorted to wangling pills from doctors with phony stories about exhaustion and pain.
Johnny’s arrests and no-shows at concerts soon became the talk of the business. In a particularly mortifying moment in 1965, he smashed some footlights at the Grand Ole Opry and was told that he wasn’t welcome there anymore. He was largely indifferent to his daughters, who were taunted with barbs of “trash Cash” at school. Vivian filed for divorce in 1966.
Cash’s best friend during this period was June Carter, a member of the Carter Family singers, a well-known country and gospel group. Cash and the Carters often appeared together; June tried to keep Johnny out of trouble when he was high, and prayed with him when he was sober. In 1968 he impulsively turned to June during a duet onstage in London, Ontario and asked her to marry him. She tried to shush him, but soon yielded to Johnny’s—and the audience’s—pleas. They married and two years later had a son, John Carter Cash, now 16.
At first, it seemed that June’s influence had a positive effect on Cash. Periodically he would try to heal himself, once by holing up in his bedroom to sweat it out. On several occasions he was under a doctor’s care. Then, after his encounter with the unfriendly ostrich, Cash was given heavy doses of painkillers and drifted into another addictive phase.
Cash finally kicked alcohol and drugs in 1983, after the family confronted him in their Hendersonville living room. June told Johnny the family would break up if he didn’t stop. Rosanne began to cry and confessed that she, too, had been developing a dependency on drugs. A shamed and desperate Cash checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic for 44 days—two weeks longer than normal. Since leaving the clinic, Cash says he hasn’t touched drugs or alcohol. “Some people say I straightened out Johnny, but that’s not true,” says June. “There’s no way a man can ever get straightened out if he doesn’t have the grit to do it himself.” Cash and Rosanne, who has also kicked her drug habit, attend private therapy sessions.
The new, sober Johnny has become a doting father and grandfather (he has eight grandchildren) with an uncanny ability to know when his family needs him. Daughter Kathy says she has been shaken on several occasions when, in the midst of a personal difficulty known to no one but herself, she would receive a call from Johnny on the road. “What’s wrong, baby?” he would ask.
Whenever possible, Cash corrals members of the clan to come to one of the six homes he owns in Tennessee, Virginia, New Jersey, Florida and Jamaica. The homestead in Hendersonville, a stone-and-timber mansion with three dining rooms the size of ballrooms, is just a whoop and a holler from the Johnny Cash Parkway. The so-called “House of Cash,” an office building and museum housing Johnny’s business headquarters, is nearby. It’s here that his sister Reba Hancock, 52, manages the millions Johnny has accumulated despite all the bad times. In fact, though Columbia Records recently terminated Cash’s contract, he has signed a new deal with Polygram and figures he’ll soon add to the nine gold records he has made so far. Cash is also back on a full tour schedule, playing about 75 concerts a year.
As a veteran of 12 TV movies and the film A Gunfight with Kirk Douglas, he is eager to produce a movie version someday of The Man in White. Another religious novel is also in Cash’s mind. But mostly the once wild Johnny is concentrating on making new records and “patching things up. I had some bad old days,” says Cash. “I always remember that God forgives, though, and one of the worst things you can do is not to forgive yourself.”