GREATEST LIVING LEGEND

by, Awallati Osman

FROM FAR PEOPLE could just tell that it is Johnny Cash, passersby even stop him when he was walking towards a café at the end of the street to be interviewed. When he arrived, the country music’s Greatest Living Legend clears his throat before shaking hands and says, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” His voice has no different compared to what we hear from the radio, very familiar actually. I wasn’t surprised when I see the expression of his face; it is so obvious that from past years he really has been working out so hard throughout his career in the music industry.

Johnny Cash or John R. Cash started the interview by telling me a brief about him that most of us have already known. He was born in a small town of Kingsland, southern Arkansas on February 26, 1932. Ray and Carrie River Cash are his parents, and Johnny has seven siblings including him. At the age of three he and his family moved to Dyess Colony because his father took the opportunity in the new Roosevelt farm program at the northeast of Arkansas. Along with his siblings and parents John helped them to work on the 20 acres of cotton and other seasonal crops.

Johnny Cash at the age of ten, 1942. Taken from Academy of Achievement

Johnny Cash at the age of ten, 1942. Taken from Academy of Achievement

Like every other kid, Johnny told me that he also has someone that is important in his life; someone who he looked up respectfully, it is his brother, Jack. Jack was two years older than him, and was killed at the age of 14. “He was my inspiration and at that time I’ve always wanted to be more like him. He was without doubt a strong person, and in a very good shape physically. He was also a Bible student.”

After his brother died, his mother was still his best friend to him because she sacrifices so much to encourage Johnny in singing. His mother even took up a second job (washing teachers’ clothes) to pay for Johnny’s singing and voice lessons. “The voice teacher said that I do not need this lessons, I just have to do it my way. At that time I was so glad for my mother,” said Johnny after sipping the strong black coffee that he ordered earlier.

Johnny Cash and his mother, Carrie, 1968. Taken from Academy of Achievement

Johnny Cash and his mother, Carrie, 1968. Taken from Academy of Achievement

According to Johnny, he started his career when he was 18 years old after his graduation from high school in 1950. He managed to land a job in a body shop in Michigan car factory (Pontiac) and later after few weeks of working he got enlisted to the Air Force. “The Air Force was a necessity as I knew at that time I didn’t want to be a cotton farmer and the only thing that I want to learn is on the guitar.”

While his basic training in Texas he meets his first wife, Vivian Liberto then later get married and settled down in Memphis with her after his discharge in 1954. He tried a few of other jobs at that time including being an unhappy door to door salesman while trying to break in the music business. Then I asked how did he manage to win Sam Philips, he pauses as he answered, that when he manage to get to Sam Phillips, from Sun Records he was turned down at his first try, and after that he tried to call back a few times to hold an interview but failed.

“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.”,” said Johnny excitedly sharing how he manage to nail himself into music business with Sam Phillips from Sun Records.

After that he brought two other musicians, Luther Perkin and Marshall Grant (The Tennessee Two) and released the song that they recorded on the second day of the recording. Sam Phillips was also the man who discovered Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. “Sam Phillips is the man that likes originality, and as we know that he also has successfully recording people who sound different. Even at that time he said that, my voice was different,” add Johnny while adjusting his body posture for comfort.

From left to right: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, Sun Records. Taken from Academy of Achievement.
From left to right: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, Sun Records. Taken from Academy of Achievement.

He won a gold record for the 1960 top single “Ride This Train”, then follow by the Ring Of Fire album, 1963 and later the LP Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison in 1968. Since the 1960 has worn him out, Johnny begins a new addiction to tranquilizers and the amphetamine Dexedrine to keep up with his hectic schedule. His marriage was also starting to fall apart at that time and he was so dependant towards his drugs at that moment.

In 1967 Johnny Cash manage to face his addiction with the help of his singing partner June Carter and her family. “June always try to take away my pills and flushed them into the toilet,” said Johnny while shaking his head lightly as though he regretted about the addiction. It was obvious that from his face expression, he was never proud of himself at that moment although his career was going well at that time. After a year, he married June Carter of the legendary well known Carter Family, whose radio broadcast has inspired Johnny while growing up in Arkansas.

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, his singing and life partner. Taken from Academy of Achievement.
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, his singing and life partner. Taken from Academy of Achievement.

After that his career went through a renaissance and the renewed sales of his record make him earn quite a lot of money. At that point, Johnny make use of that money for charity, he uses it to support the mental health associations, a home for autistic children, refuges for battered women, the American Cancer Society, YWCA and many more. Not only that, he even played benefits for the Native American causes and helped a burn research center in memory of his former guitarist, Luther Perkins, who died in a fire.

Adding to those facts, he also campaigned for prison reform, and performing for prison inmates. That campaign helped many to return to the society. The interview stops a while as there was a family of four saw Johnny Cash, and wanted to have little chat with him. “If it is okay, can I entertain them for a while,” asked Johnny Cash. Of course nobody would ever turns down a living legend before, so the interview continues five minutes later.

The living legend Johnny Cash. Taken from cosmiccowboysmusic.com

The living legend Johnny Cash. Taken from cosmiccowboysmusic.com

When the interview resumes back, I asked if he could tell me briefly on what are the most memorable moments in his life that he couldn’t forget. So he stares at me and smiles widely and said, “Of course it’s when I married June Carter on March 1st 1968 and the day my son was born, 3rd March, 1967. My induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, it could be considered as the best thing that a country singer could ask. The most memorable of all would be when I got listed in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. It means so much to me and if you entered my house that would be the first thing you would see.”

The interview ends with a simple question whether he trusts his instinct or not, so he answered,   that throughout his life, he always trusts his instinct,

“Instinct is vital. Listen to your heart.”

He stands up and shakes my hand firmly at the same time wishing me best of luck and walked away joining the big crowd of people walking by the café.

Johnny Cash still remains as the only one country music singer that sells over 90 million records.

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P/S : THIS ARTICLE IS FOR ACADEMIC PURPOSES ONLY. THANK YOU.

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