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Interview: John Carter Cash

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For many people, Johnny Cash isn't just an American music icon.  He is American music.  His was the voice of the rebel, the seeker of truth, the romantic, the underdog, the criminal, and the preacher.  In his life, he wrestled with the contradictions inherent in all those characters, which made him all the more fascinating.  While that may be a cliché, it's almost impossible to say something about him that hasn't already been said so many times over the past 50 years. 

Six weeks ago, Sony Legacy released a two-DVD set comprised of 66 performances from the 58 episodes of The Johnny Cash TV Show, which ran on ABC from 1969 to 1971.  The show gained fame for its diversity of guests, from Derek & The Dominoes to Ray Charles to Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys.

John Carter Cash is the son of Johnny and June Carter Cash and the Executive Producer of both this DVD, and of Walk The Line, the Academy Award-winning biopic of Cash's life.  I recently spoke with Cash about the TV show and his father's legendary career.

I'm really glad this DVD is out, because I've never seen anything more than clips here and there.  Why did you wait so long to release it?

It wasn't a wait, really, it was a longstanding effort that has been in process in dealing with Sony Legacy for over 12 years that was begun by my father and my mother, and carried over by his manager Lou Robbin and myself after they passed.  It was just a matter of finally being able to get it all together, with the million different licenses and clearances.  It's a logistical nightmare to make something like this a reality, with the blessed help of some hard work and dedication by the folks at Sony Legacy.

By definition, a variety show is supposed to be diverse.  But on his show, your father really sought to push the boundaries of what was allowable on TV, didn't he?

Yes, he did.  He wanted to go as far as he could in any direction out of his spirit, whether it was rock 'n roll performers like Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles, and all these different areas of music, and then have these bright, young aggressive songwriters at the time like Neil Young and James Taylor.  And then, to come back around and focus on where his heart was, which was gospel.  He created this full picture, this amazing diversity that had not been touched on before. 

And also, it was live television, so there was spontaneity and mistakes that went along with it.  But he never stopped having fun, and I think that's what was so infectious, that energy he put out drew in the watcher and the music listener and the comedy lover.  It was a wonderful show, and I'm glad we've had the opportunity to release it.

How did you decide which clips to include?

It was a long process of choosing what to put in, and it started early in defining what to put in and when, what to save for maybe a later DVD, and what would be appropriate to put in the first one.  Of course, what seemed to be the brightest points can easily be overshadowed by something else that you stumble across.  So it was a hard process, but I sure do love the final DVD.  And there is a lot more great television from the shows that will be released down the line.

There's a really remarkable episode towards the end of the show's run in 1971 where he went to Vanderbilt University and had a very frank discussion with students on the issues of the day.  Could you talk a little about that episode and why that was important to him?

My father was seeing what was going on in the world around him, and the issues that the students were protesting about, like the war.  And he wanted to give everyone a voice, and it wasn't just the protesters.  He wanted to reach out into the public and he wanted to hear the voice of young America.  He wanted young America to hear what their peers were saying.  That episode was about allowing that voice to be sent out there.

Did that episode lead, in part, to the cancellation of the show?

I think that there were a number of issues that led to the cancellation of the show, one of which was that Johnny Cash was going to do what he wanted to do, and that was the end of the story.  He did what he believed in, and he wanted to preach the Gospel, the Christian message.  He did a full gospel show because he wanted to do it, and God bless the producers for letting him do it, but it probably ruffled some feathers with that.  Part of his rebellious nature was his conservative spirit. 

As soon as the show was canceled, he went on to create the film Gospel Road, which tells the story of Christ.  My father sang songs and Robert Elfstrom directed the film and also played Christ.  That's where his heart was at the time, so that might have had something to do with it.  My dad wasn't afraid to go controversial, but he wasn't afraid to speak for anybody. 

I love the clips with your mother where she would recite a poem because they're so cornball, but your father just ate it up.  When he drops his head and looks into her eyes, it's so sweet. You can really see the love they had for each other. 

Yeah, they had a great love for each other, and her humor was probably one of the first things about her that sparked my dad's heart.  So he had a good connection with her jokes and her spirit, and he loved her dearly in many ways.

Every time I listen to the prison albums, I'm struck by how he formed a bond with the inmates, in his song selection and in the stage banter.  But what gets me is the gospel songs at the end, because he's offering the prisoners the idea of redemption.  And it's done in a way that's not, for lack of a better word, preachy. 

He could offer that redemption and his view and spirit.  The magic of it was that he could sing "Cocaine Blues" or "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die."  He could get them riled up with energy and make them take him in as one of their own, and then when he got them there, he'd lay out the Gospel for them.  That came naturally to him, but not everybody could do that.  It was his way of relaying the message, and it was unique.

Your parents were citizens of the world, loved everywhere they went.  You never heard about them refusing autographs or not talking with the fans.  Was it difficult to share them when you were growing up?

I think there might have been some jealousy.  Looking back now, I see that there was this distance with my father going away.  And not only that, later on, I got into a competition with him in an emotional, mental and spiritual level in my own life.  It took a lot of struggle to figure out exactly what I wanted and what I wanted to do with myself.  And I think that's probably pretty common with children of accomplished entertainers. 

But right now, I'm happy where I am.  I have a wonderful family, and a beautiful wife who's a talented musician. I have a purpose in my life to my children, to my family, to my God, and to my work.  And I think all those struggles growing up were lessons to learn and processes to go through.

Many artists of his generation, especially in country music, don't get the recognition they deserve until after they're gone.  At best they get lip service.  What did that mean to him in those last ten years with the Rick Rubin albums and the reissues to have not just a commercial resurgence, but a critical one as well?

He wouldn't stop, and it was his persistence that created all that and made it come back around.  It was his wonderful musicians that made those records possible.  I think it was inevitable.  He had this unstoppable persistence in his spirit that was going to create these things.

I loved Walk The Line but I have one question about it.  The story of your father's spiritual discovery at Nickajack Cave is well-known as the moment in which he decided to give up drugs, but it was left out of the movie.  Why?

That was a low point in his life, and he had many lows besides that.  I think it's hard to film in a dark cave.  If you look for more about my father's faith, for more about the true reasons for his redemption and his reprieve from drug use in the late-1960s through the early-70s.  If you look for a number of other things, you will be greatly lacking, like an accurate portrait of his relationship with my grandfather.  It's just not there. 

But if you look for one thing, a beautiful story of a love affair, and you take the film on its own for what it is and what it stands for, it does that one thing beautifully.  That is the film that my parents set out to create.  That was their vision and their hope, that there would be a film created that would tell the story of their love, how it formed, and how it endured.  And in that, I have to say that I'm 100% happy.

You can hear this interview in its entirety at Wings For Wheels.

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About Dave Lifton