Johnny Cash (2002): At home and at peace
Cash keeps the albums coming, though his days of touring are just a memory. It seems illness won't silence the Man in Black.
COUNTRY RETREAT: Cash sits among musicians at a rural Virginia auditorium, where he takes the stage a few times a year. (Josh Meltzer / For The Times)
Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, own glamorous estates in Nashville and Jamaica, but they find special comfort in the beauty and tradition of this house and this unspoiled valley, both of them the home to country music's hugely influential Carter Family.
"It comes down to solitude and peace of mind," Cash says, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. "That's something we cherish now. The phone rarely rings up here.
"We bought this place in the early '80s. June grew up here, and it has always been her dream to come back here. We make it a couple of times a year. I wish we could make it more."
It was the inspired mountain music of the Carter Family -- A.P., Sara and Maybelle -- that helped lay the foundation for modern country and bluegrass music in the 1920s. As a boy in Dyess, Ark., Cash heard such Carter Family tunes as "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "Wabash Cannonball" on the radio, and he dreamed of being a singer himself.
Cash has lived that dream for nearly half a century. He's done more than anyone since Hank Williams to raise the artistic level of country music, thanks to his blue-collar tales of human desire and redemption. Hailed as an influence by everyone from Bob Dylan to Bono, he has been voted into the country music, rock 'n' roll and songwriter halls of fame.
Over the years, the Man in Black, as he is known for his trademark garb, has spent close to 8,000 of his days on tour.
But those days are long behind him. The years have been hard on Cash, a hellion in his younger days who battled a fierce amphetamine addiction.
Many assumed Cash's music career was over six years ago when doctors told him that he had a rare, life-threatening neurological disorder, but the singer didn't give up. He has recorded three more albums, two of which won Grammys. The third will be released Nov. 5.
Even after learning in 2000 that the diagnosis was false, he has continued to suffer from failing health. Cash has been hospitalized several times for pneumonia, once spending nearly two weeks in a coma. Glaucoma robs him of much of his eyesight, causing a sometimes unsteady gait. Asthma leaves him short of breath, requiring him to take rests during recording sessions.
But his mind remains sharp, and his love of music is still intense.
"Music is part of my life every day," says Cash, who is warm and surprisingly shy for someone who has been in the spotlight for so long. "It's hanging around every morning; sometimes it is with me at night. June says I was singing a song all last night in my sleep. She had to shake me."
Cash's voice breaks. "It's the asthma," he says as he reaches for a glass of water and tries to catch his breath.
In the evening, the Cashes head down the road for a guest appearance at a weekly barn dance sponsored by descendants of the Carter Family. Admission at the informal 1,000-capacity amphitheater is just $4 for adults, and the seating is first-come, first-served. The building has a homespun touch, with fans sitting on old school bus seats, church pews and movie theater chairs.
It's the only place Cash performs these days. Janette Carter, June's cousin, doesn't advertise his appearances because she doesn't want to put pressure on him if he doesn't feel up to performing. But word has spread through the county that Cash is appearing, and there's an overflow crowd.
It's an older audience, and most have followed Cash's music for years. The room explodes with cheers when he takes the stage, and for a moment the magic is back. Joined by a three-piece band, Cash opens with "Folsom Prison Blues," and his rich, deep voice is as strong as the original recording:
I hear the train a-comin'
It's rollin' round the bend.
And I ain't seen the sunshine
Since I don't know when.
I'm stuck in Folsom prison
And time keeps dragging on ...
Cash isn't a great singer technically, but he's a superb communicator whose almost conversational vocal style captures life's everyday search for comfort and salvation with uncommon warmth and conviction. Even in the most joyous tunes, however, his instrumental sound tends to be stark, as if reminding us of life's accompanying hardships.
There are flamboyant touches in his recordings (the mariachi-like horn lines in "Ring of Fire"), but the trademark sound is a "chicka-boom-chicka" guitar approach (pioneered by the late Luther Perkins) that is as steady and self-affirming an amplified heartbeat. His music is drawn equally from blues, gospel, traditional country and folk -- woven together, in such songs as "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line," into a rich tapestry of Americana.
Cash also navigates nicely through Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down," but the shortness of breath shows in places on "Supper-Time," an obscure country song he recorded in 1958.
Most of the fans are too excited to notice when he misses a word here and there, but June, looking for any sign of difficulty, sees what's happening and takes the stage at the end of the number, giving her husband a rest. After a few minutes, he's back by her side, joining her in a duet, and the voice has regained its power. The crowd roars again.
A trademark greeting
There are no address markers identifying Cash's house, so what you have to do is just turn into one of the long driveways that leads from the old two-lane road, knowing that if the house doesn't belong to Cash it will surely be a relative's. Everyone in the area about 15 miles from the Tennessee border seems to be a Carter cousin of some sort.
The Cashes' house is on a slope at the base of Clinch Mountain, which means you can't see the faces on the porch from the driveway below. But the deep, familiar voice tells you immediately that you've found the right place.
Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.
Well, he really only says, "Hello"; your mind fills in the rest of the line that Cash used thousands of times to open his concerts and his national TV show.
The greeting was as much Cash's trademark as his solid shock of black hair and his black shirt and pants the cotton farmer's son wore as a symbol of support for the downtrodden and oppressed. But his hair is now white, and he's relaxing in a khaki shirt-jacket and gray slacks.
For anyone who remembers his rugged good looks and confident aura, it takes a moment to adjust to the vulnerability that age has brought. But Cash makes it easy to get past appearances.
A deeply religious man, he's too aware of his many blessings to complain about any physical ailments. Besides, in this idyllic valley whose Shell station is the only sign of commercial intrusion, it's hard to be downcast about anything.
Cash loves the purity of the mountain music handed down by the Carter Family, and he feels in touch with that tradition in Maces Springs. He returns here for cleansing the way some people might turn to the hot desert air or mineral baths.
After a breakfast of ham, biscuits, scrambled eggs and three types of homemade jelly prepared by the couple's two housekeepers, Cash is tired and lies down for a morning nap.
June, energetic at 73, uses the time to show off the valley. Behind the wheel of the couple's Lincoln sedan, she points out the places where members of the Carter Family went to school or fished. She even takes me to the local cemetery to see the graves of A.P. and Sara Carter, the husband and wife who formed the trio with June's mother, Maybelle. The wording on their tombstones includes the title of their most famous song, "Keep on the Sunny Side."
As June, who sang with her mom and sisters in a version of the Carter Family for years and who is a Grammy-winning recording artist now working on a new collection, heads back to the house, she marvels at how the area has retained its character.
"I loved this place, but I also felt there was more outside of these mountains and I was going to see it," she says. "I went to New York to study acting, but I eventually went back to music. I remember first hearing Johnny Cash on the radio, and he sounded so lonesome. It reminded me of something deep inside of me. It was like there was a piece missing in both of us, and God put us together and made us whole."
By the time June gets back to the house, Cash is refreshed and wants to play a tape with some rough vocals of the black gospel songs he is thinking about including on his next album. When the tape ends, Cash picks up an acoustic guitar and starts singing some more songs in a similar style, and his voice is straight and true.
"As long as I can make records, I'm fine," he says, setting down the guitar. "After all the years, I don't really miss the road. You know what a big fun day for me is now? It's when June gets up and we're both feeling good and we want to go shopping. We'll go to Wal-Mart and I'll get one of those electric carts and just race through the aisles. Imagine that being the highlight of your day."
Still, isn't he looking forward to going on stage in a few hours?
He looks up and smiles, "You bet."
Fans lend him a hand
At the barn dance that night, the Cashes take a seat in the audience after their set to watch the other musicians. Fans surround them, eager to shake their hands or get an autograph. After one song they retreat backstage for a few more minutes before leaving the building.
In the '60s Cash was one of the most charismatic performers in pop music -- prowling the stage with the nervous energy of a caged animal. He looked so tough and unapproachable that fans used to step out of his way as he moved about backstage. After all, he did sing in "Folsom Prison Blues" about shooting a man in Reno "just to watch him die."
As he heads down the amphitheater steps on this night, however, several admirers step forward, helping steady him.
By the time I join them at their house a few minutes later, June is wearing her robe and eating some corn bread and milk. John is in a chair opposite her, looking tired. He's got cookies and milk on a tray in front of him.
He's not happy with his performance, and it brings out some of the vulnerability that he hadn't shown earlier in the day, when he spoke about the gospel album as if it were a foregone conclusion he would make it.
Now he admits he'd worried that his upcoming album might be his last. He wasn't pleased with some of his vocals on it, and he wondered if his producer Rick Rubin was losing patience working with him. The last two albums may have won Grammys, but they didn't sell much -- a tiny fraction of Rubin's albums with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and other rock groups.
"I had just finished my last vocal for the record and I shook hands with Rick and I said, 'It's been fun.' I think it was my way of saying I understood if he wanted to call it quits.
"But he immediately asked what I wanted to do next. I mentioned the black gospel album, and then I mentioned an album of songs that would show my musical roots, and Rick said, 'Let's do them both.' I was dumbfounded. It was just what I wanted to hear. I had thought I might finally be at the point where I would only be singing for myself."
Taking a bet, and winning
It's a sad image, but Cash's story again is his way of extolling his blessings. After all, he still gets to make records.
Earlier in the day, Cash had told another story, one that perhaps best summarizes his feelings about all that has happened to him.
Back in 1970, Cash took Michael Nesmith, of the Monkees, on a tour of his lavish new house on Old Hickory Lake outside Nashville.
"We looked at the house and Michael said, 'I'm glad for you. Shame you can't keep it.' I asked what he was talking about and he said, 'We can't keep things like that in this business. My bet is you'll lose this place and this woman because the business is awfully rough and you're as vulnerable as anybody else.' "
"I knew what Michael was saying, but I told him I'd take that bet, and you know what? I won."