The man in black

I was 33 years old, when I found myself covering Branson, Mo., as it exploded as a live performing destination for country music legends. It was one of those moments when you’re a reporter at the right place at the right time. It’s also the time I interviewed Johnny Cash and June Carter. Reading this again, it may not be the best story I ever wrote, but the quotes show what I remember as one of my most memorable interviews and one of my greatest days as a journalist, so I include it here.

Sunday, April 12, 1992

The Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader

First, you notice the eyes, dark and intense.

Johnny Cash’s face may have more lines, but at 60 the eyes have the same stare caught in hundreds of pictures over four decades.

They light up when he talks about his recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They look incredulous when he speaks of the younger artists who idolize him from members of the rock group U2 to introspective singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello.

You can tell a lot by looking into Johnny Cash’s eyes.

Cash walks into the room with a confident John Wayne stride. During lunch recently in Branson, where he’s scheduled to open the Cash Country theater May 1, he caused a stir in a town where it’s common to see country music stars about town.

But then this is the man who received the loudest ovation two months ago at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies, a country dude with slicked back hair amid a world of longhairs.

Cash says he felt as at home with John Fogerty and U2 in New York s he would with Porter Wagoner on the Grand Ole Opry.

“They branded me country from the first time I went on the Grand Ole Opry in 1957,” Cash says in his recognizable baritone drawl. “But that’s OK. I guess if they’ve got to put people in bags, that’s the bag I belong in.”

Yet Cash were there when Elvis was first wiggling his hips, Carl Perkins had new blue suede shoes and Jerry Lee Lewis was setting the world on fire by playing the piano standing up. They were together at Sun Records in Memphis, where Sam Phillips was helping forge a new kind of music, and Cash was walking the line between country and rockabilly.

“So many of his first hits were pop hits – like ‘I Walk the Line’ and Ballad of a Teenage Queen,’ “ says June Carter Cash. “I remember that because I was a fan first.”

Fast-forward 40 years and Cash’s fans now include U2’s Bono. The two visit when Cash tours Ireland or when Us travels to America. There’s even been talk of collaborating on an album, like the duet Cash performed with Dylan in 1968. Cash and Bono already have written eight lines of a song over the telephone. Tentative titled “Staten Island” it’s about the Irish immigrants’ first view of the United States.
“That’s a dream for me that I don’t have time to do now,” Cash says of making an album with Bono. “I really would like to do that. The rock ‘n’ roll artists have accepted me so readily.”

The rest of the world may take for granted Cash’s influence on what we listen to. “Rock Island Line” and “Big River” are standards of country and pop. His distinct, talkative singing also provided searing versions of Dylan’s “Wanted Man,” Mick Jagger and Keith Richard’s “No Expectations” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman.”

Those are among songs chronicled on “The Essential Johnny Cash,” a 3-CD, 75-song set released this month.

Cash credits Gregg Geller, the producer he never met, for compiling a package that wasn’t merely a “greatest hits” collection.

“For someone who doesn’t know me, who can be objective about me and my work, he picked songs that were very much a part of me,” Cash says. “He put a lot of thought into it. There’s a piece of me in every song.”

Cash, however, says he’s still surprised when younger singers say he’s influenced them.

“It does surprise me,” Cash says. “When I was in England in 1979, Elvis Costello came up and started talking to me about some of the more obscure records I made … I was never so surprised in my life when Bono started talking to me about the songs I’d made in the ‘60s.”

Cash casually talks of visits by Paul McCartney at a vacation home in Jamaica, where they’ve written songs together.

Most of those rock ‘n’ roll names Cash has been dropping have one common denomination. They’re from Europe, where Cash is revered by a younger audience.

After visiting Branson, Cash was preparing to leave for his first European tour with the Highwaymen – joined by Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

“Europe is where I have more of a younger audience than the states,” Cash says. “People are shouting the whole show and it’s a big deal for me. Now people like Ry Cooder didn’t hurt me any, when he recorded ‘Get Rhythm.’ “

Nearly 40 years later, Cash still gets a kick out of being an ol’ country boy who can hang with the young rock punks.

That rockabilly attitude still kindles his soul.

You can tell just by looking in his eyes.