Johnny Cash: The 'Fresh Air' Interview After recording hits in the '50s and '60s, Cash's career cooled down. Then, a '94 collaboration with producer Rick Rubin transformed the former country star into an icon. Originally broadcast in 1997.

Johnny Cash: The 'Fresh Air' Interview

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we go into the archive to play back interviews with two music icons, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. Our country may be politically divided but on this Thanksgiving Day, I think we can all agree that their music is part of what has made America great. We'll start with Johnny Cash. I interviewed him in 1997 after the publication of his autobiography when he was 65. He died in 2003.

He had his biggest hits in the '50s and '60s, songs like "Ring Of Fire" and "I Walk The Line." As he said in his book, between the early '70s and early '90s, he didn't sell huge numbers of records, but he kept making music he was proud of. But in 1994, he teamed up with record producer Rick Rubin, who had produced many rap and rock hits. They recorded a series of albums without glossy studio production focusing on songs they loved, including country songs, hymns and covers of contemporary singer-songwriters.

As the autobiography says, the Cash and Rubin collaborations transformed Cash's image from Nashville has-been to hip icon. Let's begin with a song from that first collaboration "American Recordings." This is "Why Me, Lord?"


JOHNNY 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 kindness you've shown? Lord, help me, Jesus, I've wasted it so. Help me, Jesus. I know what I am. Now that I know that I've needed you so, help me, Jesus. My soul's in your hand.


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 of, you know, the sacred and the profane running through your life?

CASH: Yeah, Kristofferson wrote a song, and in that song was a line that says - he wrote the song about me. He's - there's a - he's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction. And I've always explored various areas of society. And I love the young people. And I had an empathy for prisoners and did concerts for them back when I thought that 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?

CASH: My father was a cotton farmer first and - but he didn't have any land or what land he had, he lost it in the Depression. So he worked as a woodman and cut pulpwood 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.

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.

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.

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

GROSS: (Laughter) 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?

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 I haven't been familiar with hard work. It was no problem for me. But first I hitchhiked to Pontiac, Mich. and got a job working 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?

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...

GROSS: Oh, no (laughter).

CASH: Yeah, songs that he sang on the Jack Benny show.


CASH: Every week, he sang an old Irish folk song. And 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 going to have religion and glory, everybody going to 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.

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

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

CASH: "Lucky Old Sun," "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?

CASH: Well, I say I'm not a singer, so that means I can't sing. But - doesn't it (laughter)?

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

CASH: Thank you. Well, a song stylist is, like, to take an old folk song like "Delia's 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 loved 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?

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 schoolteacher's clothes and anybody she could and sent me for singing lessons for $3 per lesson.

And that's how she made the money to send me.

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?

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 that 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 got turned down again. He told me over the phone that he couldn't sell gospel music so - as 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. I 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?

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

CASH: That was my third record.

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

CASH: In the Air Force, I had an old Wilcox Gay recorder, and I used to hear guitar runs on that recorder going (vocalizing) 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?

CASH: It was kind of a prodding 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.

CASH: 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 (vocalizing) 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 to send out any more records of that song.


CASH: 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.


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. 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. Because you're mine, I walk the line...

GROSS: You're listening to my 1997 interview with Johnny Cash. We'll hear more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1997 interview with Johnny Cash.


GROSS: 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?

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 we went down and there's a rodeo at all these shows that the prisoners have there. And in 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 is all right and that 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 a third year and did the show.

And then I kept talking to my producers at Columbia about recording one of those shows. So we went into Folsom on February 11, 1968, and recorded a show live.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Folsom Prison Blues" from your live "At Folsom Prison" record? This is Johnny Cash.


CASH: Hello, I'm Johnny Cash. (Singing) I hear the train a coming, it's rolling '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 dragging on. But that train keep a rolling 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 blowing, I hang my head and cry.

GROSS: I guess Merle Haggard was in the audience for one of your San Quentin concerts. It must have been pretty exciting to find that out. That was before he...

CASH: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Had recorded, I think, that he was in there.

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

GROSS: Yeah, and who knew?

CASH: I mean, I didn't know that until about 1963, '62. And 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: 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?

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 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 it. 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.

That was American Recordings. I said, I like the name, maybe it'd 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, Calif. 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 (laughter). 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. What 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 to 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 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 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 for my soul.

That's how I felt about 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: Yeah, I was really glad you did it that way. There's something just so - just emotionally naked.

CASH: Yeah.

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

CASH: Thank you.

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

CASH: I want to say, you're really good at what you do. And I appreciate you. Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Johnny Cash was recorded in 1997. We have another archived interview with another music icon, Ray Charles, after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


CASH: (Singing) Glory, hallelujah, I shall not be moved. Anchored in Jehovah, I shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's planted by the waters, I shall not be moved. In his love abiding, I shall not be moved. And in him confiding, I shall not be moved. Just like the tree that's planted by the water, I shall not be moved. I shall not be, I shall not be moved.

I shall not be, I shall not be moved. Just like the tree that's planted by the waters, I shall not be moved. Though all hell assail me, I shall not be moved. Jesus will not fail me, I shall not be moved.

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