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Johnny Cash

Interview: Johnny Cash
Country Music Legend

June 25, 1993
Glacier Park, Montana

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When did you first have a vision of what you wanted to do?

Johnny Cash: I think the first time I knew what I wanted to do with my life was when I was about four years old. I was listening to an old Victrola, playing a railroad song. The song was called, "Hobo Bill's Last Ride." And I thought that was the most wonderful, amazing thing that I'd ever seen. That you could take this piece of wax and music would come out of that box. From that day on, I wanted to sing on the radio. That was the big thing when I was growing up, singing on the radio. The extent of my dream was to sing on the radio station in Memphis. Even when I got out of the Air Force in 1954, I came right back to Memphis and started knocking on doors at the radio station.

I tried several things.

I grew up in the '40s and I heard all these great speeches, like Winston Churchill. His most famous, or infamous commencement exercise speech was one that consisted of seven words. He stood before this graduating class and said: "Never, never, never, never, never give up." And then somebody else said: "Every day in every way I'm getting better and better." I didn't especially believe that about myself, but I said it every day and I made myself believe it and it worked. I persevered. I never gave up my dream to "sing on the radio." And that dream came true in 1955.

Johnny Cash Interview Photo

Tell us how that dream came true. Who gave you your first big break?

Johnny Cash: Sam Phillips, at Sun Records. There was a label called Sun Records in Memphis that was pretty hot, with Elvis Presley, and two or three locally well-known country acts, and some black, blues and gospel singers. When I got out of the Air Force I went and knocked on that door and was turned away. I called back for an interview three or four times, was turned away. So one morning I found out what time the man went to work. I went down with my guitar and sat on his steps until he got there. And when he got there I introduced myself and he said, "You're the one that's been calling." I said, "Yeah." You know, I had to take the chance, he was either going to let me come in, or he was going to run me off, turn me down again. Evidently, he woke up on the right side of the bed that morning. He said, "Come on in, let's listen." So he did. He said, "Come back tomorrow and bring some musicians." So I went down to the garage where I worked, where my brother, Roy worked, and was introduced to two musicians down there. Brought them back to the studio and the next day was our first session. We recorded, and released the songs that we recorded the second day.

It was very simple back then. You didn't worry about arrangements. It was one-track recording.

When you were young, was there a particular book that you read that was important to you?

Johnny Cash: I read a book when I was about 12 years old about an Indian named Lone Bull. Lone Bull had tried to go out and kill a buffalo. He slipped out of the village, against his father's wishes and went out. He was going to be a hero and kill a buffalo and bring it back to the village, so his family and the other people could have meat. And the elders of the village knew about the buffalo herd. They knew it was there, and they were making plans to cut into the heard and cut off some buffalo and kill them and have meat for the whole winter and into the next spring. Lone Bull wanted to be a hero. He went out with his bow and arrow and killed a calf, and ran the herd off into the next state. He drug this calf home, his family was fed, but they were ostracized from the village. They had to leave the village. Lone Bull became a wanderer, until he found a village that would take him in. In that next village where he was taken in, he organized the buffalo hunt that winter, and they had more meat than this village had ever had before. So, I learn from my mistakes. It's a very painful way to learn, but without pain, the old saying is, there's no gain. I found that to be true in my life. You miss a lot of opportunities by making mistakes, but that's part of it: is knowing that you're not shut out forever, and that there's a goal there that you still can reach. Lone Bull's philosophy was, "I'm kicked out of this village, but I will grow up and I'll come into another one and I will do what I set out to do, that was feed the people." So I'm feeding my people right now.

Johnny Cash Interview Photo
A lot of people let failure get them down. You're saying that you've got to move on.

Johnny Cash: You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space. If you analyze it as you're moving forward, you'll never fall in the same trap twice, which I can't say that I haven't been guilty of doing. But my advice is, if they're going to break your legs once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

Was there a particular person that was very important to you as a kid?

Johnny Cash: In my little world, in northeast Arkansas on a cotton farm, it was my brother, Jack. He was my inspiration. He was two years older than I and he was killed at the age of 14. I always wanted to be like him. He was a strong person, he was a Bible student, he was in perfect shape, physically. I always wanted to be like him. And when he died, my best friend was still my mother, and she always encouraged me to sing. As a matter of fact, we were very poor and she took in washing from the school teachers, washed their clothes to make money to give me singing lessons, voice lessons. After about three lessons the voice teacher said, "Don't take voice lessons. Do it your way."

I was glad for my mother that I didn't have to take them.

You didn't mention your father.

Johnny Cash: My father was a man of love. He always loved me to death. He worked hard in the fields, but my father never hit me. Never. I don't ever remember a really cross, unkind word from my father. He was a good, strong man who provided for his family. That was his sole purpose in life when I was growing up.

It sounds like your parents were supportive of your path.

Johnny Cash Interview Photo
Johnny Cash: They were. Especially my mother. She was the most musically inclined in the family. She played a little guitar and piano, and loved to sing. From the time I started trying to sing when I was a kid, she always encouraged me to do it. I told her when I was about 12 that I was going to sing on the radio. She encouraged that dream.

Musically, my inspirations were whoever was popular on the radio: Jimmy Rodgers, the Carter Family -- which is my wife's family -- black blues, black gospel and white gospel groups, like the Blackwood Brothers, and the Chuckwagon Gang. Or cowboy singers like Gene Autry, and Bob Wills. I liked the image of the man with the white hat correcting all the wrongs out there.

Your voice does not sound like anybody else's voice. You must have had a lot of confidence that you had a voice.

Johnny Cash: I did.

It goes back to that music teacher when I was 12 years old. After the third lesson, I was singing some popular country song of the day. I forget the name. I think it was a Hank Williams, no, it was too early for Hank Williams, I guess. Whatever the song was, I didn't sing it like the artist had sung it on the radio. And she said, "You're a song stylist." She said, "Always do it your way." And from the age of 12, I didn't forget that. But that was the way I had to do it, because it was the way it was with me. I had to do it my way. I couldn't read those notes, singing those great songs, like a lot of those singers could, but I could do it my way -- the way it felt good to me. And that's what music is all about, emotion.

Could you talk about a couple of moments that were highlights for you.

Johnny Cash Interview Photo
Johnny Cash: When I married June Carter, March 1st, 1968. My son was born, March 3rd, 1970. My induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which is the ultimate for a country singer, in 1980. Then, of all things, the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. They recognized my Rockabilly roots, I suppose. But the big one for me, the one that meant the most to me was the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. To recognize a talent that comes from God through a person. That means more to me. It's on a little stand just as you come in my door. It's the first thing you see when you come in my house. I'm extremely proud of that.

What are the most important qualities for success in music?

Johnny Cash: To love who you are and what you do, and to have faith in your ability to do it. You've got to know your limitations. I don't know what your limitations are. I found out what mine were when I was twelve. I found out that there weren't too many limitations, if I did it my way.

I'm not talking about ego, and arrogance, and grandiose feelings. I'm talking about self-esteem and confidence. That's vital: self-esteem and confidence.

What do you think Sam Phillips saw in you that made him take a chance on you?

Johnny Cash: I think Sam Phillips saw the originality and my difference. As a matter of fact, he said so. I think that's what it was all about with Sam Phillips and me. That's why he said, "Bring some musicians tomorrow and let's record," after he heard me the first day. He heard something that was different. Not necessarily something that was good or exceptional, or even good, but different. He had had a lot of success recording people that sounded different.

That's a talent in itself.

Johnny Cash: If it works. It's like a novelist writing far out things. If it makes a point and makes sense, then people like to read that. But if it's off in left field and goes over the edge, you lose it. The same with musical talent, I think.

If you can hold your listener, hold their attention, and you're sure you know what you're doing, and know that you're communicating -- you know, performance is communicating. You've got to communicate. You've got a song you're singing from your gut, you want that audience to feel it in their gut. And you've got to make them think that you're one of them sitting out there with them, too. They've got to be able to relate to what you're doing.

How do you do that?

Johnny Cash: I don't know how you do that. I just know when I'm doing it, and I know if I'm not doing it. After 38 years experience, I pretty well know if it's going to work or not, usually.

As a song writer, do you feel confident enough about, yes, that works, or is there a lot of insecurity about that?

Johnny Cash: There's no insecurity about my song writing.

I start a lot more songs than I finish, because I realize when I get into them, they're no good. I don't throw them away, I just put them away, store them, get them out of sight. When I get an idea for a song it would gel in my mind for weeks or months, and then one day just like that, I'll write it. Songwriting is a very strange thing as far as I'm concerned. It's not something that I can say, "Next Tuesday morning, I'm gonna sit down and write songs." I can't do that. No way. If I say, I'm going to the country and take a walk in the woods next Tuesday, then the probability is, next Tuesday night I might write a song Creative people have to be fed from the divine source. I do. I have to get fed. I have to get filled up in order to pour out. Really have to.

What feeds you?

Johnny Cash: God and inspiring people, like around here at the Academy of Achievement. These people inspire me.

What are you most proud of?

Johnny Cash: I'm most proud that, after all I've been through, God has let me be alive and well today, and still with June Carter.

Did you ever imagine that you were going to have this tremendous success?

Johnny Cash: No. I had no idea, even when my first record was released. For two or three days I heard it played over a Shreveport, Louisiana radio station, and I thought, "That's too far away. That doesn't matter. It's too far away from Memphis." It was a couple of months before I realized that the whole world was out there.

Johnny Cash Interview Photo
Johnny Cash Interview Photo

Did you have trouble dealing with success when it came?

Johnny Cash: Yeah. I had a lot of trouble dealing with success. I think it was harder for me to handle than failure would have been. I had a hard time dealing with it. I had lived a simple life and life on the road as an entertainer is anything but simple. It's very complicated, very trying, very taxing, very tiring. I had my ups and downs, as is well documented.

What advice would you give a young person to avoid some of those pitfalls.

Johnny Cash: I heard a speaker talking about drugs, alcohol, artificial stimulation, and the instant gratification syndrome. He said, youth itself is enough to ask for, with all its fire and energy, enthusiasm, exuberance, eagerness and hunger. Youth shouldn't be clouded by any chemical or anything. Somebody my age can easily know that too, but youth is too wonderful a thing to mess with while you've got it.

Was there a teacher that particularly inspired you? Was school important to you?

Johnny Cash: Yeah, I graduated from high school in 1950, in a little town in Arkansas. Actually, it was the biggest, what they call, cooperative school in the state.

I graduated from high school in 1950, in a little town in Arkansas. Actually, it was the biggest, what they call, cooperative school in the state. For a small country town, there were 1,100 students in this school. And I graduated as the vice president of my class. I wasn't all that high scholastically, because I was writing a lot of poems, and stories, and songs at the time, and I should have been studying more. But school was really important for me. And I was so disappointed in my self that I didn't make really good grades in math. In all the other subjects I did very well. But school was really important to me. My parents -- my mother and father -- I think they had an eighth grade education, which was adequate for what they did with their lives then. But they wanted me -- and they drilled in me -- I had to graduate from high school.

College was another hope that was almost unattainable for a cotton farm boy. There was no money for college, and the Korean War was breaking out, so I joined the Air Force.

Would you tell a kid today that school is important?

Johnny Cash Interview Photo
Johnny Cash: I've probably had the equivalent of college in the roads I've traveled since then, but it would have been great to go from high school right into college to study music and literature.

What are your goals now?

Johnny Cash: I don't set my goals too high now, at this time in my life. My goals are just to live each day and to keep doing what we're doing. June and I work hard and we travel more than we really want to, but we're doing exactly what we really want to do with our lives right now. It may not be the case a year from now, or five years from now, but right now we're doing what we want to do with our lives.

We do a little acting. We did a TV western that both of us were in. We've done seven movies of the week for television, and we still do that once in a while. We do TV specials. We have an appearance coming up in Washington for the Fourth of July celebration. Things like that, and like the Academy of Achievement, are high points of the year for us.

Can you talk about what your marriage has meant to you?

Johnny Cash: The big thing about the music in my life, we shared it. We have a sharing marriage, and we share the road, we share the bedroom, we share the backstage, onstage, we share the music, the feeling, and the emotion, and the joy of it, you know. And the pain and the sadness of it. We share the love of our children. It would be terribly lonely not to have someone to share those things with me. And she's not only a lady who I share my life with, but she may have been the person responsible for my still being alive. She and God. Because she came along at a time in my life that I was on self-destruct, and she saw what I was doing to myself and she helped bring me back up out of it. And we've fought and worked hard to keep our feet on the ground since then. But like I say, today is a good day.

If you could talk to someone you never met but had admired, who would that be and what would you talk about?

Johnny Cash Interview Photo
Johnny Cash: I would like to have been on the mountain when Jesus was preaching. I would like to have been listening. It's great to still have his words. I would like to have talked to John Wilkes Booth, and asked him "Why?" to satisfy my own curiosity. I'd like to talk to Pontius Pilate. I'd like to talk to the Apostle Paul. I'd like to talk to King John, at the time of the Magna Carta, and see what the reaction of the common people was.

The Bible is very important to you.

Johnny Cash: I wrote a book called Man In Black, and I dedicated it to E.J. Carter. That's my wife's father, who taught me to love the Word. He was a theologian and he got me into Bible history, and the Bible commentaries. I discovered the joy of discovering spiritual truths, and it is a great joy. The Bible is the source of the greatest joy.

What impact has that had on you?

Johnny Cash: It's a great moral stabilizer in a world that's run amok. It's an anchor for my own conscience, my own mind and my own life. It keeps my feet on the ground. It gives the answer to every problem you're facing, if you look for it.

Johnny Cash Interview Photo

It answers the question: Why?

Johnny Cash: God loves us. That's why he created us and gave us free will. Kind of like a farmer watching his chickens to see what they're going to do. It desires that we all come back to him. That's the way I think, that's my God.

I've heard you recite "The Cowboy's Prayer." Could you tell us what that means to you?

Johnny Cash: It was written by a guy named Badger Clark, in the '30s. I don't remember it all by heart. But you can get the spirit of it:

"Lord, I've never lived where churches grow.
I've loved creation better as it stood.
The day you finished it so long ago,
You looked upon your work and called it good.
Others seemed to find you in the light
That sifted down through tinted windowpanes
And yet I feel your presence here tonight
In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains."

That's part of "The Cowboy's Prayer."

That speaks of nature and God's presence.

Johnny Cash: Yes. Someone told me another definition of God is "Great Outdoors."

What characteristics are most important for success?

Johnny Cash: I could go by a lot of catch phrases like, "Know your own self," "To thine own self be true." Self-esteem and perseverance and confidence are all important, but the first thing is to know what you want to do. Set that goal out there and never lose sight of it, and work toward it. And know that there are going to be byways and sidetracks, but keep persevering and keep on, and do what you know that you want to do.

How do you know what you want to do?

Johnny Cash: A person knows when it just seems to feel right to them, something they want to do. Feeling has still got a lot to do with it.

Instinct is a very important thing to you.

Johnny Cash: Instinct is vital, yes. Listen to your heart.

Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

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