Johnny Cash could cough better than most people could sing, says country legend’s bandmate

IN his prime, Johnny Cash’s chiselled features seemed as if they were hewn from granite.

Imagine how great he’d look on Mount Rushmore — if the National Memorial sculpture was for singers, not presidents.

A lost album of all original compositions by Johnny Cash, simply called Songwriter, has been lovingly masterminded by his son John Carter Cash

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A lost album of all original compositions by Johnny Cash, simply called Songwriter, has been lovingly masterminded by his son John Carter CashCredit: PA
Johnny with Marty Stuart, the icon's friend and band member, who has worked on the new project

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Johnny with Marty Stuart, the icon’s friend and band member, who has worked on the new projectCredit: Supplied
Johnny with son John Carter Cash who has decided the time is now right to release the 'lost' songs

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Johnny with son John Carter Cash who has decided the time is now right to release the ‘lost’ songsCredit: Handout

Born into a family of poor Arkansas cotton farmers, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become country music’s ultimate icon and rebel, The Man In Black.

Cash was the embodiment of the American Dream who never forgot his roots and never failed to speak up for the underdog.

His was a life well lived, guided by deep and abiding faith in God AND by the demons which led to his battles with addiction.

He walked the line.

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He possessed an inimitable, rock solid bass-baritone which graced his own songs and imperious interpretations of other people’s.

Who can forget his wrung out performance of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails, from the last album released in his lifetime, American IV: The Man Comes Around?

Its writer, Trent Reznor, remarked: “That song isn’t mine anymore.”

“Johnny Cash could cough better than most people could sing — even his cough had character to it,” says country artist Marty Stuart, who played guitar in Cash’s band in the early Eighties and also appeared on numerous studio recordings by the singer he called “The Chief”.

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Bonded by music and the stage, Marty got to know and love his mentor “in everyday life”.

“Whether he was conducting an interview or doing a press conference or acting in a movie, I went everywhere with him,” he says.

“He was my best friend and I watched everything. For me, the real classroom was behind the scenes.”

Now, 21 years on from Cash’s death at 71, there’s good reason to celebrate one of his towering strengths — songwriting.

A lost album of all original compositions simply called Songwriter has been lovingly masterminded by his son John Carter Cash. By taking that immense voice from 1993 sessions and providing crisp new accompaniments courtesy of Cash associates (including Marty) and family, the 11 tracks are a testament to his pithy and profound way with words.

Bob Dylan, no less, called Cash “a poet laureate” of American songwriting and for good reason.

His finest songs include I Walk The Line, Get Rhythm, Big River, I Still Miss Someone, Folsom Prison Blues, Five Feet High And Rising, The Man Comes Around, the list goes on.

‘He lived his life and the music would come’

His efforts on Songwriter such as Hello Out There, Drive On and She Sang Sweet Baby James are worthy of a place alongside them.

On his travels, Cash would carry a black leather briefcase with a gold J.C. monogram AND a big shoulder bag.

The person he was hardest on was himself. Looking at these (Songwriter) recordings helps bring up the beauty and the strength he never lost.

John Carter Cash

“He’d take a Bible, four or five hardbacks, some pens — and notebooks and notebooks,” says John, the only child of his dad’s marriage to the love of his life, June.

Cash never knew when he might need to jot down an idea or a lyric or even a complete song.

“He lived his life and then the music would come,” John tells me via video call from his home in Tennessee.

When he died on September, 12, 2003, just four months after June, Cash “left behind so many of those notebooks”.

No doubt many of his jottings led to the tracks on Songwriter, from his vivid study in redemption, Hello Out There, through to Like A Soldier, on which he compares himself to a war survivor with PTSD, “getting over his crazy days” and “lawless ways”.

John gives Hello Out There a special mention.

“It is timeless and beautiful and one of my favourite songs,” he says. “Every time it goes to the bridge, I can’t help but cry almost.”

In early 1993, when Cash committed these songs to tape, he wasn’t in the best shape and his once mighty career was at a crossroads.

“He wasn’t looking to release a record,” says John. “He was more focused on his personal life at this time.

“His jaw had been broken during dental surgery and he’d gone back into recovery.”

It’s well documented that Cash became addicted to booze, speed and sleeping pills in his early years and then prescription painkillers after, of all things, being attacked on his farm by an ostrich called Waldo.

But John has this perspective: “Everybody talks about dad’s addiction and the hell he put himself through — but it really wasn’t that bad.

I’ve always tried to follow dad’s wishes. It made no sense to him to release these recordings so, for a long time, it didn’t make sense to me.

John Carter Cash

“The person he was hardest on was himself. Looking at these (Songwriter) recordings helps bring up the beauty and the strength he never lost.”

Very soon, Cash would “rise again spiritually and emotionally” and begin a golden late career making his stripped-back American Recordings series with Rick Rubin, the bearded, barefooted producer best known at the time for his work with Beastie Boys.

But there was a brief time when “he had reached the end of his term with Mercury Records and was not yet officially working with Mr Rubin.”

John explains that the “lost” tracks came from this period. “Dad had a bunch of songs he wanted to record,” he says.

“My half-sister Rosie (June’s daughter from a previous marriage) was married to Mike Daniel, a producer at LSI Studios in Nashville.

“So dad went in there and Mike, along with some other producers, helped him put a band together.

“He brought in Dave Roe (bass) from his touring band and Kerry Marx (guitar). And I’m on most of the recordings myself.

“He re-cut three of his hits but the rest of the songs were lesser known or unknown Johnny Cash compositions with his voice leading the charge.”

John says: “I’ve always tried to follow dad’s wishes. It made no sense to him to release these recordings so, for a long time, it didn’t make sense to me.

“But finally, I thought, ‘Hey, now’s the time to see if there’s a way to put this album together and share it with the world.’”

If the backing instruments were in need of an upgrade, there were no issues around THAT voice.

“There is no such thing as a Johnny Cash demo,” says John. “When he held the microphone or stood in front of one to sing and play guitar, his voice was masterful.

“And there is absolutely no lack of brilliance in his voice on these recordings. That being the driving force, we simply built on it.”

With John deciding to give the Songwriter project a go, he set about convening a gathering of his dad’s associates at the fabled Cash Cabin studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

‘There you are!’

He brought in David “Fergie” Ferguson, sound engineer on the American Recordings, and band members Dave Roe (who has since died) and drummer Pete Abbott.

Cash’s grandson, Joseph, plays drum and organ parts while his six-year-old granddaughter Grace can be seen in the video for Hello Out There. John’s wife Ana Cristina Cash provides gorgeous backing vocals.

And, of course, there’s Marty Stuart, who recorded new electric and acoustic guitar parts, taking his cue from late, great Cash sidekick Luther Perkins, and has given me invaluable insights into his friend.

In the early Eighties, Marty wed Cash’s daughter Cindy, sister of Roseanne, but they divorced five years later. Since 1997, he’s been married to fellow country singer Connie Smith.

When I put on the headphones and heard his voice popping through again, it was like, ‘There you are! Where have you been? Good to hear you again.

Marty Stuart

So how did it feel for him to join the Songwriter project, to be back in the studio with that voice?

He says: “When I put on the headphones and heard his voice popping through again, it was like, ‘There you are! Where have you been? Good to hear you again.’

“I can’t tell you the hours I’ve sat and heard that voice in my head.

“But what struck me right off the bat was how much fire he had in it and how healthy he sounded, how full of life. It was in direct contrast to some of his later recordings.” For Marty, one of the older Songwriter tracks, Spotlight, “jumps out of the speakers”.

“I’d get him to sing Spotlight back when I was in the band. I was married to Cindy at the time and she loved that song,” he says.

Marty is full of praise for Rick Rubin who, he says, gave Cash “the reason to stay alive” thanks to his American Recordings albums.

However, he adds: “We capitalised on the weirdo grandpa thing but, for me, the real Johnny Cash was from about 1956 until 1969 and this record puts that version of him back on the table.”

‘A tower of wisdom’

I ask Marty to assess the songwriting skills of “The Chief” and he tells me: “Merle Haggard and I used to have great discussions about which was the best Johnny Cash song.

“We were both huge fans of his writing — he truly was a poet — and we agreed on Five Feet High And Rising. It was settled right there.

Marty, as he is now, played guitar in Cash’s band in the early Eighties and also appeared on numerous studio recordings by the singer he called 'The Chief'

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Marty, as he is now, played guitar in Cash’s band in the early Eighties and also appeared on numerous studio recordings by the singer he called ‘The Chief’Credit: Getty
The lost album of all original compositions has been lovingly masterminded by his son John

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The lost album of all original compositions has been lovingly masterminded by his son JohnCredit: David McClister, LLC.

“He had a brilliant take on things and brought it in a very simple, common man’s way.

“His take on life, and the afterlife, was pretty special and he had a beautiful and accessible way of putting it down.

“You won’t find very many, if any, long songs. Most were three minutes or less. He got it said and done, brilliantly.”

Marty describes Cash as “a tower of wisdom”.

“When it came to creativity, he was the most fearless person I’ve ever met,” he says.

“If he had a song or a concept he believed in, even if nobody cared about it except himself, he would see it through.

“There was what the world thought and what he thought — and his was usually a Moses kind of stance.

“I learned just by watching and listening to him, never by being told, ‘You’ve got to do it this way.’

“At the bottom of it all, he was still a country boy from Arkansas, well grounded in common sense.”

Both John and Marty also remember Cash’s “rumpus” sense of humour, which comes into play on Well Alright, set in a laundromat.

“The world will never understand what a brilliant clown he was,” says Marty. “His humour was dark, it was crazy and that’s the part of him I miss very much.

“I would pick up the phone and call his number and he would put his spin on whatever the world was going through, putting everything into perspective.”

No talk of Johnny Cash is complete without mentioning his partner and soulmate June Carter Cash, a member of the trailblazing country music dynasty, The Carter Family.

The Songwriter track I Love You Tonite serves as an affectionate tribute to June.

Bearing in mind they both passed away in 2003, this verse is particularly poignant.

“Oh baby, ain’t we a sight? Can you believe we made it through the Eighties? And will we make the millennium? Well we might.”

John well recalls his parents’ devotion to each other: “Dad often wrote love letters to my mother, not just songs.

“He would make his own Valentine’s cards for her.

“He would cut out a pink piece of paper in the shape of a heart and put ‘I Love You June’ on it.

“Those cards were more meaningful to my mother than any diamond — although there were a couple of very important diamonds!”

‘He questioned Hurt’

Marty also witnessed Cash’s love for June first hand, none more so than at the end of their lives.

“The truth is, Connie and I lived next door to Johnny and June. The other side of us was Roy Orbison’s home.

“A day after his mom’s funeral, John Carter Cash called me and said: ‘Dad wants to record.’ And I replied, ‘That’s the best news I’ve heard, let’s go.’

“And I felt more love in his conversation about June on that day than ever before.

“At one point, he went really quiet and reached for my hand so I went over to him and gave him a hug.

If people really want to know who he was, and I hope people will look deeper into my father, they will find out through the brilliance of his songwriting.

John Carter Cash

“He said, ‘Son, cling to her, love her and always kiss her goodnight.’ He was talking about Connie and I went, ‘Got it.’ And I thought, ‘That is such precious wisdom right there.’”

Johnny pictured in 1987

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Johnny pictured in 1987Credit: © 1987 Photograph by Alan MESSER
Born into a family of poor Arkansas cotton farmers, Johnny pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become country music’s ultimate icon and rebel, The Man In Black

8

Born into a family of poor Arkansas cotton farmers, Johnny pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become country music’s ultimate icon and rebel, The Man In BlackCredit: Getty

The last words are with John Carter Cash, who reflects on his father’s rendition of Hurt, recorded in 2002, and why its lyrics resonated with his own songwriting.

“He questioned Hurt at first but he knew the words matched his life,” says John.

“They were sad and revealing. How many people feel despair and just by expressing that despair find hope? That’s what Hurt was to dad.

“He would never take on a song as an actor. He always kept it real.

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“If people really want to know who he was, and I hope people will look deeper into my father, they will find out through the brilliance of his songwriting.”

Johnny Cash. The Man In Black. Singer. Songwriter.

Songwriter is out on June 28

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Songwriter is out on June 28Credit: PA

JOHNNY CASH

 Songwriter

★★★★☆