As the only child of the marriage between two music icons, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, John Carter Cash grew up in what must have been a rarified atmosphere. When your parents’ house guests range from Billy Graham to Bono and you spend much of your early childhood on the road it’s fair to say that your upbringing isn’t going to be what anyone would call normal. However, your parents are still your parents no matter who they are, and you see them differently from the way anyone else does. Seeing them before they have their morning coffee or at home out of the spotlight gives you a far different perspective.
Since Cash’s death in September 2003, only four months after his wife’s, Carter Cash has been combing through the family archives. As the release of four compilations of previously unreleased Cash material in the form of multi-disc sets through the Legacy label show he has proven to be a careful and meticulous caretaker of his parent’s memory. The musical treasures he has unearthed have reminded the world of not only the diversity of Cash’s musical interests but the depth and breadth of his world view.
Now in an attempt to shine a light on the man he knew as his father, Carter Cash has opened the family vault a little wider. In a new book, House Of Cash: The Legacies Of My Father, Johnny Cash, published by Insight Editions, he has combined his memories of his father with an intriguing collection of Cash’s personal papers and photographs to bring the man behind the myth to life.
You might wonder what there left to tell about Cash’s life. What with him having written two autobiographies, a movie having been made about his early life and courtship of June Carter, and him always being so open about his struggles with addictions and the other demons in his life, it’s hard to imagine there’s anything left to add to the story. If you’re reading the book in the hopes of finding some startling revelations or unearthing new tidbits about Cash then you will be disappointed. However, this is a son’s view of a very public figure, and as such we see the man from a far different perspective than any that’s been offered before. In and of itself, the close family tie lends House Of Cash a validity it would otherwise lack if it were merely another biography looking to mine already overworked material.
Over the course of the book the picture Carter Cash draws of his father shows that in spite of his complexities, contradictions, and celebrity, he was still very much the down home country boy. In spite of living in fancy houses and being driven around in a limousine, he still would go squirrel hunting and cook them up for supper. On Valentine’s Day he might buy his wife fancy jewellery, but he’d also always make her a rough handmade card each year as well. A family shopping list included in the book reads much like any household’s, including such staples as white bread, bologna, and lard. True, that would change latter in life as he and his wife became more health conscious (among the items included in the book are family recipes for among other things the Cash family version of a vegetarian burger), but that doesn’t change the fact Johnny seemed to make a special effort to keep his family life as homespun as possible.
Part of that attempt at keeping his family life grounded in the common place was both his and his wife’s refusal to become attached to material items. While some might say the trappings of celebrity don’t mean much to them, in the Carter Cash household those weren’t just words. They would do things like sell their classic Rolls Royce in order to pay for a trip to Israel for their employees and their families. After his wife died, Cash started giving away everything he owned. He had always claimed she was what was most precious to him, and once she was gone nothing else seemed to have much value for him anymore.
Of course things weren’t always idyllic in the Cash family home. In the early 1980s Cash fell back into drug addiction again and Carter Cash tells about fearing his parents would end up divorcing, the fights at home being so bad. One of the letters included in the book is a copy of one Cash wrote to his son from the Betty Ford Clinic during this time. He doesn’t try to apologize or explain himself to his son. Instead he tells him what his days consist of, including how he’s attending a lecture on meditation, and that’s he learning how to meditate. He then goes on to define meditation as the listening half of prayer adding the codicil of “Isn’t that neat?”
As you might expect from our public knowledge of Cash and his wife their faith played a very large role in their lives. While they were good friends with Billy Graham and Cash was never shy about stepping up and “testifying” about his beliefs, his son also remembers his father being completely without judgement about other people’s beliefs and practices. When his eldest daughter Rosanne, from his first marriage, was interested in astrology, he–instead of disapproving–told her to read as much as she could and find out all about it. What comes clear in this book is that while Cash might have been a devout Christian he believed in every individual’s freedom to find their own way.
No matter how much success Cash achieved musically he continued to remain an outsider and something of a rebel. Without a record contract in the 1990s and looking to record again, he was reluctant to work with established Nashville producers. Which was when Rick Rubin walked into his dressing room and said, “Come into the studio with me and make the music you’ve always wanted to make. Sit in front of the microphone and sing your songs they way you want”.
According to Carter Cash nobody had ever offered his father this opportunity before. When one of the resulting recordings, Unchained, won the 1996 Grammy award for best country album without any support from Nashville or country music stations Cash and Rubin took out a full page advertisement in music magazines. Featuring the infamous “finger photo” the copy read “American Recordings (Rubin’s label) and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville Music Establishment and country radio for your support”.
Aside from his own memories of his father, Carter Cash has also solicited others close to his father for their recollections of his dad for inclusion in the House of Cash. These include friends of the family, Johnny Cash’s daughters from his first marriage, and friends like Kris Kristofferson and others from the music industry. Each of them comment on Cash’s generosity and kindness to both them personally and others. While this was never something Cash spoke about when he was alive, both he and his wife dedicated themselves to helping others as much as they were able. Unlike others who might see these types of acts as photo opportunities, they did these things because they were in a position to do them. From giving a drunk on the street a hundred dollar bill to visiting sick people in the hospital, it was all one in the same thing to them.
The memorabilia included in this book, ranging from copies of everything from song lyrics in Cash’s handwriting, examples of his homemade Valentines for his wife, to samples of his photography and his dabbles in painting and sketching, are more than just curiosities. Each of them, no matter how seemingly trivial, are another little piece in the overall picture that was Johnny Cash. They also add to the highly personal flavour the author has created by telling the story of his father’s life as seen through his eyes growing up in the House Of Cash.
It’s a tale told from the small boy who sees his father as a giant to be worshipped, to the slightly older boy worried about the wonderful world of his father and mother falling apart for reasons he doesn’t understand, to the young man and adult who realizes the amazing lessons his father taught him. Each stage in his parents’ life together is examined with honesty, and while Carter Cash never lost his respect for his father, he isn’t blind to his faults. In fact it says more about the artist than anything else, that in spite of his flaws and the hard times he put them through, his children still can love him unconditionally.
Johnny Cash’s legacy as a musician has long been established. In House of Cash Carter Cash lets us know more about the man and the parent behind the guitar and out of the limelight. What comes clear is there wasn’t really much difference between the two. What we saw on stage, for good and for bad, was Johnny Cash. As it turns out, while there were some hard times, the good won out in the end. As Carter Cash puts it so succinctly in describing his parents’ marriage, “Their life was not necessarily ‘happily ever after’, but rather ‘happy after all’. Life isn’t always easy and isn’t always glamourous, but it’s what you do with what you have that makes it worthwhile. Carter Cash shows us how his father always did his best to make life for both himself and his family worthwhile.