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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today would've been Johnny Cash's 78th birthday, and the final album in Cash's series "American Recordings" was released today. Produced by Rick Rubin, the series features Cash singing a mix of traditional ballads, his own songs, and moody cover versions of songs by artists ranging from Leonard Cohen and Loudon Wainwright to Beck and Nine Inch Nails.

Rubin and Cash started the series in 1994. This final album features songs recorded between 2002 and Cash's death in September 2003. He died at the age of 71.

We're going to hear interviews I recorded with Cash and with Rubin. Let's start with a song from the new album. This is "Redemption Day," written by Sheryl Crow.

(Soundbite of song, "Redemption Day")

Mr. JOHNNY CASH (Singer): (Singing) I've wept for those who suffer long, but how I weep for those who've gone in rooms of grief and questioned wrong but keep on killing. It's in the soul to feel such things but weak to watch without speaking. Oh what mercy sadness brings if God be willing.

There is a train that's heading straight to heaven's gate, to heaven's gate, and on the way, child and man and woman wait, watch and wait for redemption day.

Fire rages in the streets and swallows everything it meets...

GROSS: Johnny Cash's "American Recordings" series introduced him to a generation of listeners too young to remember him for such hits as "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire" and "Folsom Prison Blues." I spoke with Johnny Cash in 1997, after the publication of his autobiography, just days before he announced that he had been diagnosed with a neurological disorder, which was a complication of diabetes and eventually resulted in respiratory failure. I'm so grateful I had this chance to talk with him.

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, but he didn't have any land, or what land he had, he lost it in the Depression. So he worked as a woodsman and cut pulp wood for the paper mills, rode the rails in boxcars going from one harvest to another to try to make a little money picking fruit or vegetables.

He 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 varied 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 his life, and it would inspire me to go my own other direction, and I just like to explore minds and the desires of the people out there.

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

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. Did you have a plan to get out? Did you very much want to get out of the town where 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 kind of 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. But first, I hitchhiked to Pontiac, Michigan and got a job worked in Fisher Body, 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 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 sang Dennis Day songs, like...

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 crosscut 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.

(Speaking) 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: 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.

Like one time, Gus Cannon, the man who wrote "Walk Right In," which was a hit for The Rooftop Singers, and I sat on the front porch with him day after day when I found him and sang those songs.

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 call him, turned down again. He told me over the phone that he couldn't sell gospel music so - 'cause it was independent and 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'll be glad you did. And he said, come on in.

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

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.

(Soundbite of song, "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, 'cuz when the lights have lost their glow you cry, cry, cry.

Soon your sugar daddies will all be gone. You'll wake up some cold day and find you're alone. You'll call for me, but I'm gonna 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 cry alone. When everyone's forgotten and you're left on your own, you're gonna cry, cry, cry.

GROSS: So this record was the beginning of your recording career. 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, you know, 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. Just - you can't be in the building with Elvis without looking at him, you know? And he inspired me so 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 on stage, and I think of your charisma as being a very kind of still, stoic kind of charisma.

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, I'm an old man to him. I'm four years older than he was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASH: 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 didn't - I only got it to a very small degree compared to Elvis.

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 - (humming) - 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. 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: Well, 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 -(humming) - sound, and with a bass and a 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 asked him please not to send out any more records of that song.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. CASH: But he - he laughed 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: Well, let's hear "I Walk The Line." This is a great record. It was great then, and it still is. This is Johnny Cash.

(Soundbite of song, "I Walk The Line")

Mr. CASH: (Singing) 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.

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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASH: She - 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. What did it feel like for you to be on stage in bright colors or all in white?

Mr. CASH: Well, that was 1956, and I hadn't been wearing the black for very long. So it was okay. 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, a figure there in black, and everything coming out his face; that's the way I wanted to do it.

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

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to the 1997 interview I recorded with Johnny Cash. The final album in his "American Recording" series was released today.

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" that was a hit just before "I Walk The Line," and the 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 if I would come down and do a show for the prisoners in Texas.

And so I went down, and there's a rodeo at 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," "Hey Porter," "Cry! Cry! Cry!" And then the word got around on the grapevine that Johnny Cash was all right, and you ought to see him.

So the requests started coming in from other prisoners 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.

So then I came back the next year and played the prison again, the New Year's Day show, came back again the third year and did the show. And then I kept talking to my producers at Columbia about recording one of those shows. It was so exciting. I said that the people out there ought to share that, you know, and feel that excitement too.

So a preacher friend, a friend of mine named Floyd Gressett, set it up for us, and Lou Robin and a lot of other people involved at Folsom Prison. So we 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, whatever - "The Prisoner's Song" or "San Quentin," a song of mine, but they felt like they could identify with me, I suppose. I came from -I sang 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, 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 prisons, and it got overwhelming. So I decided I would do two or three, and I wouldn't do any more. 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: Well, why don't we hear "Folsom Prison Blues" from your "Live at Folsom Prison" record. This is Johnny Cash.

(Soundbite of song, "Folsom Prison Blues")

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

(Soundbite of applause)

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 Antone.

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. When I hear that whistle blowin', I hang my head and cry.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my 1997 interview with Johnny Cash in the second half of the show. The final album in his "American Recordings" series was released today. Today would've been his 78th birthday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Folsom Prison Blues")

Mr. CASH: (Singing) I bet there's rich folks eatin' from a fancy dining car. They're probably drinkin' coffee and smokin' big cigars. Well, I know I had it comin'. I know I can't be free. But those people keep a-movin', and that's what tortures me.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross.

Johnny Cash would've been 78 today. This is also the release date of the sixth and final album in his "American Recordings" series. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Cash in 1997 after the publication of his autobiography. We talked about the "American Recordings" series.

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 Nashville was about to expire. And I never had really been happy. The company - the record company just didnt 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 it so I decided I'll 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 that 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 okay. 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, 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 dont think its ever been cut, and very - dresses like a hobo, usually - clean but... (Laughing) Was the kind of guy I really felt comfortable with, actually. I think I was more comfortable with him than I would've been with a producer with a suit on. But I said, what are you going to 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 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 one in the album.

So, without him saying I want to record you and release an album, he kept - 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 didnt feel good to us that we would say, let's dont consider that one. And then we'd focus on the ones that we did like, that felt right and sounded right. And if I didnt like the performance on that 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 the different musicians and it didnt sound good. It didnt work. So we put together the album with just a guitar and myself.

GROSS: Yeah. I was really glad you did it that way. There's something just so naked about it.

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: There's something so just emotionally naked.

Mr. CASH: (Unintelligible)

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

Mr. CASH: Thank you.

GROSS: I think these records and the touring that youve done with them has helped introduce you to a younger audience that wasnt around during your earlier hits and maybe knew your reputation but didnt really know your music very well.

Mr. CASH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASH: It really does. It really does. And the ones who've been into my new recordings are 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. And the adulation, I just love it. I've always been a big ham. I just eat it up. I'm very appreciative to them.

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

Mr. CASH: I want to say, youre really good at what you do and I appreciate you. Thank you.

GROSS: Johnny Cash recorded in 1997. The final album in his "American Recordings" series produced by Rick Rubin was released today.

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