CASH ON CASH
April 1st, 2023
Doctorow Center for the Arts
7971 Main Street, Hunter, NY
MORE THAN THE MAN IN BLACK: JOHNNY CASH & ME
by Robert Burke Warren
Johnny Cash is one of the most significant American artists of the 20th century. His work resonates with undiminished intensity for an astonishingly broad spectrum of people: country fans, punk rockers, metal heads, rock n’ rollers, multiple ethnicities and nationalities, political persuasions, genders, and ages. No other artist of any stripe can claim such a varied audience. Cash was, and through his work, remains an exemplary communicator to all of them, open and articulate, part friend, part spiritual authority, part flawed hero. A global superstar, Cash nevertheless remained candid about his personal failings and tribulations. He suffered – physically, emotionally, spiritually – and sometimes behaved quite badly, but he was able to turn it all into beautiful, relatable work, more popular now than when he walked among us.
My book, Cash on Cash: Interviews & Encounters with Johnny Cash brings the man born J.R. Cash to the fore. As I’ve traveled from the Hudson Valley to Nashville to Chicago to Atlanta to the High Seas, promoting Cash on Cash with a presentation of Cash’s music interspersed with stories of his life, I’ve been amazed at the diversity of my audiences; all gladly share space, forgetting for a time the historically divisive age unfolding outside (and on the internet).
I was a fan when I started the project, but in excavating many less-known details of a remarkable life, even uncovering a few scoops, I completed Cash on Cash with intensified love for the man, and genuine awe at many facets of his story. I’ve deeply enjoyed sharing these with people. In addition to performing, I relish the opportunity to hear how Cash touched folks’ lives, and, often, the lives of their elders.
Evidently, sometimes the only thing two or three generations can unequivocally agree on is Johnny Cash. Here is the man who vociferously protested the Vietnam War yet unapologetically played the Nixon White House, who sang passionately of the darkest impulses of the human heart – like murder, for instance – yet avidly preached the gospel before millions on his dear friend Billy Graham’s crusades. Johnny Cash crossed boundaries with aplomb, yet never gave the impression he was leaving anyone behind.
Even as he evolved stylistically over his forty-year career, Johnny Cash’s fan base only grew. His is an instructive tale for anyone either seeking, or trying to understand, the creative life. Throughout a decades-long career, as he took risks, embracing new technologies and attitudes, he cleaved to a simple, core message of unvarnished truth. For his fans, this remains a north star, shining through their multiple life changes, inspiring unshakable loyalty.
While Cash’s commercial success waxed and waned, his status as an originator remained steadfast, his songs always in the firmament, on every conceivable format. They remain there today. The Johnny Cash Spotify page receives 12 million monthly visits, where fans have streamed “I Walk the Line” – released in 1956 – 300 million times, and “Hurt” – released in 2002 – half a billion times and counting. His YouTube page boasts 1.5 million subscribers, with views in the tens of millions.
Cash’s latter-day collaboration with famed hip-hop and heavy metal producer Rick Rubin is a “surprise fourth act” story for the ages. It is my favorite chapter of the Johnny Cash story. After thirty years of service and untold millions in revenue, Johnny Cash was unceremoniously dropped by his record label Columbia in the late 80s and put out to pasture. Shortly after Cash’s 1993 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Rubin – producer of hip-hop artists LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys, and thrash metal act Slayer – swooped in. A seemingly unlikely pairing – an ailing sexagenarian country icon and an eccentric, youthful genius of modern sound – their lauded American Recordings series added enthusiastic Gen X’ers to the graying Boomers who’d been with Cash since he was Elvis Presley’s peer. Cash-Rubin collaborated right up to Cash’s 2003 passing. They offered an unflinching, dignified view into the twilight of a life, rendering aging as a thing of beauty, a rare feat in American pop culture. On the heels of the American Recordings albums, Walk the Line, one of the most successful biopics in Hollywood history, captivated multiple generations.
A comprehensive collection of Johnny Cash interviews and feature stories culled from the 1950s through the early days of the new millennium, my book Cash on Cash charts a singular evolution in Cash’s own words. Although I considered myself a fan at the outset, in curating the material, I uncovered quite a few fascinating factoids I am eager to share. For starters, he was much more than The Man in Black, full of as much light as shadow. He was funny. He loved being a grandpa and regretted that so many viewed him as an ominous figure.
From hardscrabble Arkansas poor boy to rockabilly roustabout; international fame to drug addiction and disgrace; born again Christian to gimlet-eyed chronicler of spiritual darkness; flag-waving patriot to unapologetic spokesman for veterans, Native Americans, and the incarcerated; TV and movie star to Nashville reject; redemption to loss and back again, several times. In Cash on Cash, all of this transpires against the backdrop of a seismic time in world history, in which Cash was deeply invested and conversant. There is no saga remotely like it.
I always look forward to sharing Johnny Cash’s music and life story, brightening the corners of a life so fully lived, and filling a room with the immortal work of a great American artist. Come join us at the Doctorow on Saturday, April 1st, at 7 pm, and be a part of it.