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June Carter Cash: A Pioneer, A Partner

Singer June Carter Cash was a Grammy-winning singer, a songwriter, musician, actress and author. She was married to Johnny Cash, and she came from the Carter Family, the country music pioneers. She died of complications from heart surgery at age 73, just four months before Johnny Cash died. This interview originally aired on June 19, 1987.

11:28

Other segments from the episode on November 24, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 24, 2005: Interview with Johnny Cash; Interview with June Carter Cash.

Transcript

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*****

SHOW: Fresh Air

DATE: November 24, 2005

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

On this Thanksgiving, we're going to listen back to interviews with Johnny Cash
and June Carter Cash. Their lives are being dramatized by Joaquin Phoenix and
Reese Witherspoon in the new film "Walk the Line." Here's how Cash and Carter
sounded in 1965, about three years after she joined his touring show.

(Soundbite of 1965)

Mr. JOHNNY CASH: Let's get Ms. June Carter back out to help us with the song.
Hey, June. Come here. Hey, let's get the Statler Brothers, too. Come here.
Come here, June.

Ms. JUNE CARTER: Oh, let's get...

Mr. CASH: June, come here. Come here. I want you to sing a song with me.

Ms. CARTER: I would be--well, quit grabbing and clutching on me.

Mr. CASH: OK. All right. Huh.

Ms. CARTER: I'll be pleased to sing if you'll just quit grabbing and clutching.
I know it's the meanest man that's ever lived. Don't get close to him, girls,
when the show's over. Run for home hard as you can go.

Mr. CASH: Sure.

Ms. CARTER: Get out as fast as you can. He's wearing a new aftershave lotion
called Come and Get It.

(Soundbite of laughter, cheers)

Ms. CARTER: See, there, it don't bother me none. I've got me on a new perfume
called I Wouldn't Know What To Do ...(unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter; drums; music)

Mr. CASH: Sing, June.

Ms. CARTER: What we gonna sing?

Mr. CASH: Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Go away from my window. Leave at your own chosen speed.
I'm not the one you want me. I'm not the one you need.

Mr. CASH and Ms. CARTER: (Singing) You say you're looking for someone who's
never weak, but always strong, to protect you and defend you, whether you are
right or wrong, but one who will open each and every door, but it ain't easy...

GROSS: Cash and Carter got married in 1968 about three years after this
performance. He died in 2003, four months after she did. We'll start today's
program with our interview with Johnny Cash recorded in 1997, following the
publication of his autobiography, "Cash." He apologized to me for sounding a
little under the weather, and a few days later, he canceled his tour,
explaining he had an illness with symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease. It
was later diagnosed as autonomic neuropathy, a degenerative complication of
diabetes that attacks the nerves and muscles that control the body's
involuntary movements. Johnny Cash became famous with his 1956 hit, "I Walk
the Line," and went on to have such hits as "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Ring of
Fire." In the '90s, a generation of listeners too young to remember his hits
from the '50s and '60s discovered him through the CDs he made with producer
Rick Rubin. Rubin will talk about Cash on tomorrow's FRESH AIR. Here's one of
the Cash records Rubin produced.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Why me, Lord? What have I ever done to deserve even one of
the blessings I've known? Why me, Lord? What did I ever do that was worth
love from you and the kind that you've shown? Lord, help me, Jesus, I've
wasted it so. Help me, Jesus, I know what I am.

(Soundbite of 1997 interview)

GROSS: Your career has, in many ways, been about both the sacred and the
profane. You've always been Christian and have always sung hymns, and on the
other hand, there were times in your life when--as you write in your book, when
you'd been in and out of jails, hospitals, car wrecks, when you were a walking
vision of death, and that's exactly how you felt, you say in your book. Have
you always been aware of that contradiction, you know, the sacred and the
profane running through your life?

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Kristofferson wrote a song, and in that song was a
line that says--he wrote the song about me. He--there's a--`He's a walking
contradiction, partly truth, and partly fiction,' and I've always explored
various areas of society and the lovely young people. And I had an empathy for
prisoners and did concerts for them, back when I thought it would make a
difference, you know, that they really were there to be rehabilitated.

GROSS: You grew up during the Depression. What are some of the things that
your father did to make a living while you were a boy?

Mr. CASH: My father was a cotton farmer first, and--but he didn't have any
land, or what land they had, he lost it in the Depression. So he worked as a
woodsman and cut pulp wood for the paper mills, rode the rails on--in boxcars
going from one harvest to another to try to make a little money picking fruit
or vegetables, did every kind of work imaginable from painting to shoveling to
herding cattle, and he's always been such an inspiration to me because of the
very kinds of things that he did and the kind of life he lived. He inspired me
so, that all the things he did so far, from being a soldier in World War I to
being an old man on his patio sitting on the porch, watching the dogs, you
know. I think about all his life and it would inspire me to go my own other
direction, and I just like to explore lives and the desires of the people out
there.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting that you say your father inspired you so
much. I'm sure you wouldn't have wanted to lead his life, picking cotton.

Mr. CASH: Mmm, I did, from--until I was 18 years old, that is. Then I picked
the guitar and I've been picking it since.

GROSS: Right. Did you have a plan to get out? Did you very much want to get
out of the town that you were brought up and get out of picking cotton?

Mr. CASH: Yeah, I knew that when I left there at the age of 18, I wouldn't be
back. And it was common knowledge among all the people there that when you
graduate from high school here, you go to college or go get a job or something
and do it on your own. And having been familiar with hard work, it was no
problem for me. At first, I hitchhiked to Pontiac, Michigan, and got a job
working in Fisherbody(ph), making those 1951 Pontiacs. I worked there three
weeks, got really sick of it, went back home and joined the Air Force.

GROSS: You have such a wonderful, deep voice. Did you start singing before
your voice changed?

Mr. CASH: Oh, yeah. I've got no deep voice today. I've got a cold. But when
I was young, I had a high tenor voice. I used to sing Bill Monroe songs and
I'd sing Dennis Day songs, like I sang on the...

GROSS: Oh, no.

Mr. CASH: Yeah. Songs that he sang on the "Jack Benny" show.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. CASH: Every week, he sang an old Irish folk song, and the next day in the
fields, I'd be singing that song if I was working in the fields, and I always
loved those songs, and with my high tenor, I thought I was pretty good, you
know, almost as good as Dennis Day. But when I was 17, 16, my father and I cut
wood all day long, and I was swinging that cross-cut saw and hauling wood, and
when I walked in the back door late that afternoon, I was singing, (singing)
`Everybody gonna have religion and glory, everybody gonna be singing a story.'
I sang those old gospel songs for my mother, and she said, `Is that you?' and I
said, `Yes, ma'am.' And she came over and put her arms around me and said,
`God's got his hands on you.' I still think of that, you know.

GROSS: She realized you had a gift.

Mr. CASH: That's what she said, yeah. She called it `the gift.'

GROSS: Well, how did you feel about your voice changing? It must have stunned
you. If you were singing like Dennis O'Day(ph) and then suddenly, you were
singing like Johnny Cash, how did...

Mr. CASH: Well...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CASH: I don't know. I guess when I was a tenor, I just--and when it
changed, I thought, well, it goes right along with these hormones, and
everything's working out really good, you know. I felt like my voice was
becoming a man's voice.

GROSS: Right. Right. So did you start singing different songs as your voice
got deeper?

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm. "Lucky Ol' Son," "Memories Are Made of This," "16 Tons." I
developed a pretty unusual style, I think. If I'm anything, I'm not a singer,
but I'm a song stylist.

GROSS: What's the difference?

Mr. CASH: Well, I say I'm not a singer, so that means I can't sing,
but--doesn't it?

GROSS: Well, but, I mean, that's not true. I understand you're making a
distinction, but you certainly can sing. Yeah. Go ahead.

Mr. CASH: Thank you. Well, song stylists just like to take an old folk song
like "Jesus Gone" and do a modern white man's version of it. A lot of those I
did that way. You know, I would take songs that I'd love as a child and redo
them in my mind for the new voice I had, the low voice.

GROSS: I know that you briefly took singing lessons, and you say in your new
book that your singing teacher told you, you know, don't let anybody change
your voice. Don't even bother with the singing lessons. How did you end up
taking lessons in the first place?

Mr. CASH: My mother did that, and she was determined that I was going to leave
the farm and do well in life, and she thought with the gift, I might be able to
do that. So she took in washing. She got a washing machine in 1942 as soon as
we got electricity, and she took in washing. She washed the schoolteachers'
clothes and anybody she could and sent me for singing lessons for $3 per
lesson. And that's how she made the money for singing.

GROSS: What was your reaction when the teacher told you, `Don't let anybody
change what you're doing. You know, I'm not going to teach you anymore'?

Mr. CASH: I was pretty happy about that. I didn't really want to change, you
know. I felt good about my voice.

GROSS: You left home when you were about 18, and then how old were you when you
actually went to Memphis?

Mr. CASH: Well, I went to Memphis after I finished the Air Force in 1954. I
lived on that farm until I went to the Air Force. I was in there four years,
and when I came back, I got married and moved to Memphis, got an apartment,
started trying to sell appliances at a place called Home Equipment Company, but
I couldn't sell anything and didn't really want to. All I wanted was the
music, and if somebody in the house was playing music when I would come, I
would stop and sing with them.

GROSS: When you got to Memphis, Elvis Presley had already recorded "That's All
Right." Sam Phillips had produced him for his label Sun Records. You called
Sam Phillips and asked for an audition. Did it take a lot of nerve to make
that phone call?

Mr. CASH: No. It just took the right time. I was fully confident that I was
going to see Sam Phillips and to record for him. When I called him, I thought,
I'm going to get on Sun Records. So I called him and he turned me down flat.
Then two weeks later, I called, turned down again. He told me over the phone
that he couldn't sell gospel music, so--because it was independent, not a lot
of money, you know, so I didn't press that issue. But one day, I just decided
I'm ready to go, so I went down with my guitar and sat on the front steps of
his recording studio and met him when he came in, and I said, `I'm John Cash.
I'm the one who's been calling. And if you'd listen to me, I believe you'd be
glad you did.' And he said, `Come on in.'

GROSS: Well...

Mr. CASH: That was a good lesson for me, you know, to believe in myself.

GROSS: What was the audition like?

Mr. CASH: It was about three hours of singing with just my guitar. Songs--a
lot of them like the songs that are in my first American recordings of them.

GROSS: So what did Phillips actually respond to most of the songs that you
played him?

Mr. CASH: He responded most to a song of mine called "Hey Porter," which was on
the first record, but he asked me to go write a love song or maybe a bitter
weeper, so I wrote a song called "Cry Cry Cry." Went back in and recorded that
for the other side of the record.

GROSS: You say in your book you had to do 35 takes of "Cry Cry Cry." Why did it
take so many takes?

Mr. CASH: It was too simple. We were trying to make something complicated out
of it, and it was the simplest song in the world ever written, and invariably,
at some time during a take, the guitar player would mess up or the bass player
or I would mess up, and we'd have to do it over. It's not unusual, though, to
do a song 35 times.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Cry Cry Cry," which was on the first single
that Sun Records released by you.

Mr. CASH: OK.

(Soundbite of "Cry Cry Cry")

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Everybody knows where you go when the sun goes down. I
think you only live to see the lights uptown. I wasted my time when I would
try, try, try, because when the lights have lost there glow, you'll cry, cry,
cry. Soon, your sugar daddies will all be gone. You wake up some cold day and
find you're alone. You'll call for me, but I'm going to tell you bye, bye,
bye. When I turn around and walk away, you'll cry, cry, cry. You're gonna
cry, cry, cry, and you'll cry alone. When everyone's forgotten and you're left
on your own, you're gonna cry, cry, cry.

GROSS: That's Johnny Cash. We'll hear more of our 1997 interview after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Hey, porter, hey, porter, it's getting white outside. This
old train is puffing smoke and I have to strain my eyes, but...

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1997 interview with Johnny Cash.

(Soundbite of 1997 interview)

GROSS: What was it like when you started to go on tour, you know, after coming
from the cotton fields? It's true, I mean, you'd been in the Army and you'd
been abroad with the Army, but what was it like for you in the early days of
getting recognized, you know, traveling around the country?

Mr. CASH: Well, when I started playing concerts, I went out from Memphis to
Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee, played the little towns there, that I would
go out myself in my car and set up the show or get the show booked in those
theaters. And then along about three months later, Elvis Presley asked me to
sing with him at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis, and I sang "Cry Cry Cry"
and "Hey Porter." And from that time on, I was on my way, and I knew it, I felt
it, and I loved it. So Elvis asked me to go on tour with him, and I did. I
worked with Elvis four or five tours in the next year or so. And I was always
intrigued by his charisma. You know, I just--you can't be in a building with
Elvis without looking at him, you know, and he inspired me so that--with his
fire and energy, that I guess that inspiration from him really helped me to go.

GROSS: It's funny. I think of your charisma and his charisma as being very
different forms of charisma because, I mean, he would move around so much
onstage, and I think of your charisma as being a very kind of still, stoic kind
of charisma.

Mr. CASH: Well, I'm an old to him. I'm four years older than he was. So I was
23 when I started recording, and Elvis was 19. And I was married. He wasn't.
So we didn't have a lot in common, common family life, but we liked each other
and appreciated each other, so he asked me to tour with him.

GROSS: Did you want that kind of adulation that he was getting from girls who
would come see him?

Mr. CASH: I don't remember if I wanted it, but I loved it. Yeah. I did. But I
only got it to a very small degree compared to Elvis.

GROSS: Right. What were the temptations like for a young married man, like
yourself, on the road, you know, slowly becoming a star?

Mr. CASH: Hmm. Fame was pretty hard to handle, actually. The country boy in
me tried to break loose and take me back to the country, but the music was
stronger. The urge to go out and do the gift was a lot stronger. And the
temptations were women, girls, which I loved, and then amphetamines, not very
much later, from running all night, you know, in our cars, on tour, and the
doctor's got these nice pills that give us energy and keep us awake, so I
started taking those, and I liked them so much, I got addicted to them. And
then I started taking downers or sleeping pills to come down and rest after two
or three days, so it became a cycle. I was taking the pills for a while, and
then the pills started taking me.

GROSS: I want to play what I think was your first big hit, "I Walk the Line."

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm, that was my third record.

GROSS: And you wrote this song. Tell me the story of how you wrote it and what
you were thinking about at the time.

Mr. CASH: In the Air Force, I had an old Wilcox Gay recorder and used to hear
guitar runs on that recorder going, duh-duh-duh-duh, like the chords on "I Walk
the Line," and I always wanted to write a love song using that theme, you know,
that tune, and so I started to write the song and I was in Gladewater, Texas,
one night with Carl Perkins, and I said, `I've got a good idea for a song,' and
I sang him the first verse that I had written, and I said, `It's called
"Because You're Mine."' And he said, `"I Walk the Line" is a better title.' So
I changed it to "I Walk the Line."

GROSS: Now were you thinking of your own life when you wrote this?

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. It was kind of a prodding to myself to play it
straight, Johnny.

GROSS: And was this--I think I read that this was supposed to be a ballad, I
mean, it was supposed to be slow when you first wrote it.

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm. That's the way I sang it, yeah, at first. But Sam wanted it
up--you know, up-tempo and I put paper in the strings of my guitar to get that
(makes noise) sound, and with the bass and the lead guitar, there it was, bare
and stark that song was when it was released, and I heard it on the radio, and
I really didn't like it, and I called Sam Phillips and asked him please not
send out anymore records of that song...

GROSS: Why?

Mr. CASH: ...but he didn't--he laughed at me. I just didn't like the way it
sounded to me. I didn't know I sounded that way, and I didn't like it. I
don't know. But he said, `Let's give it a chance.' And it was just a few days
until--that's all it took to take off.

GROSS: That's funny. I mean, you'd heard your voice before, hadn't you?

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But--so it was something in your own singing you weren't liking when you
heard it?

Mr. CASH: Well, the music and my voice together, I just felt like it was really
weird, and--but I got used to it very quickly. I don't know if--that--I didn't
hate it, but I just didn't like it. I thought I could do better.

GROSS: Johnny Cash, recorded in 1997. We'll hear more of the interview in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "I Walk the Line")

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Mmmmmm. I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I
keep my eyes wide open all the time. I keep the ends out for the tie that
binds, because you're mine. I walk the line. Mmmmmm. I find it very, very
easy to be true. I find myself alone when each day's through. Yes, I'll admit
that I'm a fool for you...

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, Johnny Cash talks about June Carter Cash and June talks about
Johnny as we hear interviews from our archives.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Well, I see you lost your honey bee. I know how you must
be feeling now. You feel sad, sad, but, boy, it ain't that bad...

Mr. CASH and Mrs. JUNE CARTER CASH: (Singing) ...you cry just a little bit, you
die just a little bit and then you'll be all right.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Well, you know...

Mrs. CARTER CASH: (Singing) Well, you know...

Mr. CASH: (Singing) ...it wasn't long ago, your honey bee...

Mrs. CARTER CASH: (Singing) ...your honey bee...

Mr. CASH: (Singing) ...was queen of my bee tree. But then away she flew and
took my honey to you.

Mr. CASH and Mrs. CARTER CASH: (Singing) You cry just a little bit and die just
a little bit and then you'll be all right.

(Soundbite of music)

Mrs. CARTER CASH: (Singing) I pity you, I know what you're going through. You
watched your queen bee fly, your honey comb went dry, but if you keep pushing
on, you won't care that she's gone.

Mr. CASH and Mrs. CARTER CASH: (Singing) You cry just a little bit and die just
a little bit..

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to the interview I recorded in 1997 with Johnny Cash.

I think it was in the late 1950s that you started doing prison concerts which
you eventually became very famous for. What got you started performing in
prison?

Mr. CASH: Well, I had a song called "Folsom Prison Blues," it was the hit just
before "I Walk The Line," and people in Texas heard about it at the state
prison and got to writing me letters, asking me to come down there. So I
responded and then the warden called me and asked me I would come down and do a
show for the prisoners in Texas. And so we went down, and there's a rodeo at
every--all these shows that the prisoners have there, and then between the
rodeo things, they asked me to set up and do two or three songs. So that was
what I did. I did "Folsom Prison Blues," which they thought was their
song--You know?--and "I Walk The Line," "Ring of"--"Hey Porter," "Cry Cry Cry."
And then the word got around on the grapevine that Johnny Cash was all right,
and that you ought to see him.

So requests started coming in from other places, all over the United States,
and then the word got around, so I always wanted to record that, you know, to
record a show, because of the reaction I got. It was far and above anything I
had ever had in my life, the complete explosion of noise and reaction that they
gave me with every song. Then I kept talking to my producers at Columbia about
recording one of those shows. `It's so exciting,' I said, `that the people out
there ought to share that, you know, and share that excitement, too.' So
preacher friend of mine named Floyd Gressett set it up for us. So went into
Folsom on February 11th, 1968, and recorded a show live.

GROSS: Before we hear one of the tracks from that live album, tell me what it
was--what kind of reaction surprised you the most when you were performing for
prisoners?

Mr. CASH: Well, what really surprised me was any kind of prison song I could do
no wrong. You know, if it was--whatever, the prisoner song or "San Quentin," a
song of mine. But they felt like they could identify with me, I suppose. But
I came from--I sing songs like `dark as a dungeon' or `bottom of a mountain,'
songs about the working man, and the hard life, and, of course, they'd been
through the hard life, all of them, or they wouldn't be there. So they kind of
related to all that, I guess, with the songs I chose. Very little of love
songs, very few. Mostly, you know, songs about the down-and-outer. And so
then requests started coming in for me to go to other places, and then it got
overwhelming. So I decided I would do two or three and I wouldn't do anymore.
Because one thing my wife was scared to death and the other women on the show
were, too, so I decided not to. It was still a great experience to get on
stage and perform for those people.

GROSS: Why don't we hear "Folsom Prison Blues" from your "Live At Folsom
Prison" record? This is Johnny Cash.

(Soundbite of "Live At Folsom Prison")

Mr. CASH: Hello. I'm Johnny Cash.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Mr. CASH: (Singing) 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 draggin' on. But that train keeps a-rollin' on down to San
Antonio. When I was just a baby, my mama told me, `Son, always be a good boy.
Don't ever play with guns.' But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Mr. CASH: (Singing) When I hear that whistle blowin', I hang my head and cry.

(Soundbite of cheers)

GROSS: I guess Merle Haggard was in the audience for one of your San Quentin
concerts. Must have been pretty exciting to find that out. That was before he
had recorded, I think, that he was in there.

Mr. CASH: Yeah. Yeah, '68 and '69, right on the front row was Merle Haggard.

GROSS: Yeah. And who knew?

Mr. CASH: And I didn't know that until about 1963, '62; he told me all about
it. He saw every show that I did there. And, of course, the rest is history,
for Merle. He came out and immediately had success himself.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting, you've always, or almost always, worn black
during your career. And I was interested in reading that your mother hated it,
too.

Mr. CASH: She--yeah, yeah, she did.

GROSS: So we have something in common. Our mothers don't like black.

Mr. CASH: Yeah. But I love it.

GROSS: Me, too. But you gave in for a while. She started making you bright
flashy outfits, even a nice white suit.

Mr. CASH: Yeah.

GROSS: What did it feel like for you to be on stage in bright colors or all in
white?

Mr. CASH: Well, I was--that was 1956, and I hadn't been wearing the black for
very long, so it was OK. I would wear anything my mother made me, you know? I
just couldn't afford to turn her down. But before long I decided to start with
the black and stick with it because it felt good to me on stage that--a figure
there in black and everything coming out his face. That's the way I wanted to
do it.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1997 interview with Johnny Cash. We'll hear
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Before we get back to our 1997 interview with Johnny Cash, let's hear a
recording that he made with the Carter Family in 1964, about four years before
he married June Carter. This track features Cash, June Carter, her sisters,
Anita and Helen, and their mother, Maybelle.

(Soundbite of song)

CARTER FAMILY: (Singing) There's a dark and troubled side of life. There's a
fine and sunny side, too. Though we meet with the darkness in stride, the
sunny side we also may view.

CARTER FAMILY & Mr. CASH: (Singing) Keep on the sunny side. Always on the
sunny side. Keep on the sunny side of life. It will help us every day. It
will brighten all the way if we keep on the sunny side of life.

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Oh, the storm in its fury grow today, brushing hopes that I
cherish so dear. Storms and clouds will in time pass away and the sun again
will shine bright and clear.

CARTER FAMILY & Mr. CASH: (Singing) Keep on the sunny side. Always on the
sunny side.

GROSS: You married your second wife, your wife, June Carter, now June Carter
Cash, in 1968. How did you first meet the members of the Carter Family, the
kind of first family of country music?

Mr. CASH: I met June at the--backstage at the Grand Ole Opry when I did my
first appearance as a guest artist. And it was five years again till--five
years more till I saw her again and we started working together, touring
beginning in Des Moines on--in January 1962. And we've been together ever
since. I met her family when--about my second tour that we had June on 'cause
I asked them to all come and be a part of the show. So I kind of got into
those people and became a--one of their family. And it felt good to go out
with them.

GROSS: What was it like traveling with a family instead of being on your own,
being on your own, leaving the family behind?

Mr. CASH: I really don't like to do an appearance without June Carter. And
what it would be like being alone, it would be awfully lonely to me. I'm very
comfortable with, you know, how we do it, with my wife and my son on the show,
and a daughter or two. And it feels so good. I would hate to think I had to
do it all alone.

GROSS: Did it change your life to have a family that really understood the
performing life because it was their life, too?

Mr. CASH: Very much so. Yeah. Right.

GROSS: What was the difference? I mean, why was that so important?

Mr. CASH: Well, there's something about families singing together that is just
better than any other groups you can pick up or make, you know? If it's
family, if it's blood on blood, then it's gonna be--it's gonna be better. The
voices singing their parts are gonna be tighter. And they're gonna be more on
pitch because it's--as I say, it's bloodline on bloodline.

GROSS: A few years ago you started making records with Rick Rubin. Tell me how
you and he first met up. It seemed initially like a very improbable match. He
had produced a lot of rap records and produced the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot
Chili Peppers. You know, it would seem like a surprising match. It ended up
being a fantastic match. How did he approach you?

Mr. CASH: Well, my contract with Mercury/Polygram in Nashville was about to
expire. And I never really had been happy. The company, the record company,
just didn't put any promotion behind me. I think one album, maybe the last one
I did, they pressed 500 copies. And I was just disgusted with them so I
decided I'd just do my thing, I'll do my tours and writing, and that's all I
need. So that's what I was trying to do but I got hungry to be back in the
studio, to be creative, and put something down, you know, for the fans to hear.
And about that time I got to feeling that way, Lou Robin, my manager, came to
me and talked to me about a man called Rick Rubin that he had been talking to
that wanted me to sign with his record company. It was American Recordings. I
said, `I like the name. Maybe it would be OK.'

So I said, `I'd like to meet the guy. I'd like for him to tell me what he can
do with me that they're not doing now.' So he came to my concert in Orange
County, California, this--I believe this was, like, '83, when he first came,
and listened to the show, and then afterwards I went in the dressing room and
sat and talked to him. And, you know, he had his hair--I don't think it's ever
been cut. And very--dresses like a hobo, usually. Clean, but--was the kind of
guy I really felt comfortable with, actually. I think I was more comfortable
with him than I would have been with a producer with a suit on. But I said,
`What are you gonna do with me that nobody else has been able to do to sell
records with me?' And he said, `Well, I don't know that we will sell records.'
He said, `I would like you to go with me and sit in my living room with a
guitar and two microphones and just sing till your heart's content everything
you ever wanted to record.' I said, `That sounds good to me.'

So we--I did that. And, day after day, three weeks, I sang for him. And when
I finally stopped, he had been saying, like the last day or so, he'd been
saying, `Now I think we should put this in your album.' So without him saying,
`I want to record you and release an album,' he started saying, `Let's put this
one in the album.' So the album, this big question, you know, began to take
form, take shape, and Rick and I would weed out the songs. There were songs
that didn't feel good to us that we would say, `Let's don't consider that one.'
And then we'd focus on the ones that we did like, that felt right, and sounded
right. And if I didn't like the performance on my song, I would keep trying it
and do take after take until it felt comfortable with me and felt that it was
coming out of me and my guitar and my voice as one, that it was right from my
soul. That's how I felt about--you know, all those things in that first album,
and I got really excited about it. But then we went into the studio and tried
to record some with different musicians and it didn't sound good, it didn't
work. So we put together the album with just a guitar and myself.

GROSS: You know, I was really glad you did it that way. There's something just
so naked about it, there's something so--just emotionally naked. And...

Mr. CASH: ...(Unintelligible).

GROSS: ...there's so much emotion in your voice, and it's just all, you know,
comes across really clearly.

Mr. CASH: Thank you.

GROSS: I think these records and the touring that you've done with them has
helped introduce you to a younger audience that wasn't around during your
earlier hits and maybe knew your reputation but didn't really know your music
very well, and I'm wondering what that experience has been like for you to play
to younger audiences who are first getting acquainted with your music.

Mr. CASH: Oh, it feels like 1955 all over again. It really does. It really
does. And once you've been into my new recordings, or becoming familiar with
some of the old stuff, like "Folsom" and "I Walk The Line" and "Ring of Fire,"
and those songs now just really get a reaction like I did on my songs back in
the '50s. But it sounds--it feels so good with those young people in there.
Adulation--I just love it. I've always been a big ham. I just eat it up. No,
I mean--I'm very appreciative to them.

GROSS: Johnny Cash, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. CASH: I'm going to say, you're really good at what you do, and I appreciate
you. Thank you.

GROSS: Johnny Cash, recorded in 1997. He died in 2003 at the age of 71.

Here's a track from the first of the Johnny Cash albums produced by Rick Rubin.
The song is by Leonard Cohen.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. CASH: (Singing) Like a bird on a wire, like a drum in a midnight choir, I
have tried in my way to be free. Like a fish on a hook, like a knight in some
old-fashioned book, I have saved all my ribbons for thee. And if I, if I have
been unkind, I just hope you will let it go by.

GROSS: Rick Rubin will talk about Johnny Cash on tomorrow's FRESH AIR.

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