By the time he was 12 years old, Johnny Cash was writing poems, stories and songs. “I always knew I wanted to be a songwriter and a singer,” he sys in an interview with American Songwriter magazine from his home in Jamaica.
“You know the thing about songwriters, you have to write when the song starts coming,” he continues. “At least that’s the way it was with me. The songs just started coming to me and I had to write them down.”
Cash, who turned 70 on Feb. 26, has been true to his calling as a singer and songwriter. Most of his hits were self-penned, with no co-writers, including “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” “Come In Stranger,” “Cry Cry Cry,” “Hey Porter,” “I Still Miss Someone,” “I Walk The Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I’m Ragged But I’m Right” and “Man In Black.”
Raised in Arkansas on a 20-acre farm the family received as part of President Roosevelt’s “American Socialism,” Cash learned early on the value of hard work, the love of his family and trust in the Lord. He also learned that music made everything better, from the work songs chanted by field hands to his mother playing guitar and the music of the Pentecostal church in which he was raised.
And then there was country music – the Grand Ole Opry on Friday and Saturday night, Smilin’ Eddie Hill’s “High Noon Roundup” from WMPS in Memphis and anything else he could find on the dial.
After a short stint in the factories in Pontiac, Mich., Cash joined the Air Force, and it was while he was in Germany that he began to take his writing seriously. “Being away from my family and loved ones for two-and-a-half years, I wrote, not out of loneliness and boredom, but because I was alone and it was natural way to express myself to myself, to my friends, and to my world.”
He and five other servicemen started a country music band, Landsberg Barbarians, and performed hits of the day as well as his own songs, including “Folsom Prison Blues,” which later became a huge hit for him, and a gospel tune, “Bellshazar.”
At the time, Cash had no obligation to anyone as a songwriter, so he was just writing what he was feeling at the time. That pretty well sums up the way he continued to feel about songwriting throughout his career. “I don’t feel like I have to have an obligation; I have to have the song come on its own; it’s not something that I can force,” he explains.
“I don’t go for hook lines; that’s the big thing in Nashville. I go for the general feeling, that there is something strong there.”
Cash says there’s another important element in the song. “The title is always very important to me. I hear songs by somebody, and they’ll say ‘I don’t have a title yet.’ That doesn’t make any sense to me. All of my songs from the get-go have a title. That is the standard bearer that I lean on throughout the writing of the song, going back to the writing of the title. I don’t force that either but when it’s appropriate, go back to the title.”
Cash says he usually writes maybe half of a song at one sitting, then goes back to it a second and third time to finish it. “If the song is there it usually doesn’t take me very long to write it,” he concludes. “When I start to write, I write enough so that I’ve secured the idea and don’t forget it. Usually the first lyrics I come up with are always the best and I make sure they are down on paper because I start thinking about other lines and I forget them. I make it a point that, no matter how inconvenient it might be, even if I’m in bed, I get up and get a pen and paper and write it down so I don’t lose it.”
There is a song on his upcoming album for his producer Rick Rubin, “The Man Comes Around,” that has taken him longer to writer than any song he’s ever written.
“It took me nine months to write it,” Cash admits. “I wrote verse after verse, probably 25 or 30 verses, before I was satisfied with the verses I wanted to use in the song. It’s the first time I’ve ever overwritten a song, but I felt like it was necessary. The song was very special to me. It’s a spiritual about the second coming of Christ, about judgment day, the day of redemption.”
Cash has always written Christian and gospel songs. One of the re-releases Columbia is including in their year-long celebration of Cash’s music this year is Hymns By Johnny Cash, with half of the songs written by Cash. This CD releases in May.
The other releases are the 36-song package The Essential Johnny Cash, released in February, and includes four decades of recordings from his Sun, Columbia and Mercury years; American Milestones, on March 19, which is composed of five vintage Cash albums never before available on CD from his Columbia library. A second set of never-before-released songs on CD comes out in July. Columbia has also released on CD Johnny Cash: America (A 200 Year Salute In Story And Song) and Ragged Old Flag. And if you missed it, Columbia/Legacy released last year Love-God-Murder, a boxed set trilogy produced by Cash of thematically chosen 16-song anthologies.
Looking back on the songs he’s recorded, from the early years at Sun through Columbia and Mercury and on to his more recent American Recordings, Cash says he can’t pick any set formula for why his songs have been so well received by his fans, except for one little detail.
“Well, ‘I Walk the Line’ was a love song, and it had three chords, ‘Ring of Fire’ also had three chords and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ was an up-tempo rockabilly prison song. I don’t know, there is no set formula, except for the fact that over the years, I have a theme that I remember to remind myself –KISS – keep it simple stupid.”
Anther thing Cash tries to remember is that “the human being has a very delicate sense of like and dislike and listeners have pretty well heard everything. I come on trying not to offend or grate anyone the wrong way.”
Cash has had a career of ups and downs, both personally and professionally. He’s been married, divorced, and found happiness with the woman he credits with saving him from himself, June Carter Cash. He won Grammy awards, Country Music Association awards and Academy of Country Music Awards. Then in the mid-70s his popularity seemed to wane just a bit, but in the early 90s he agreed to record for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, and on March 1, 1995, his album American Recordings won a Grammy for best contemporary folk. Three years later, Unchained won a Grammy for best country. It was also on American Recordings.
In 1980 Cash, then 48, became the youngest living inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He is also one of the few country artists to have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cash received the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award in 1990. Most recently, Cash received a National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal for the year 2001. He has recorded a duet with Dave Matthews, “For You,” which Cash recorded at his home in Jamaica. This duet appears on the soundtrack of the Mel Gibson film We Were Soldiers. In February, Cash won his 11th Grammy as one of the performers on Timeless, a Hank Williams tribute, which was named best country album. It features such acts as Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Beck and Emmylou Harris.
And, if you think that’s his voice on the Ford truck commercial you watched while waiting for your favorite television show to resume, you were right. Upcoming is his fourth release with Rick Ruben, on which he will record several new songs he has written as well as songs penned by Sting (“I Hung My Head”), Marty Robbin (“Big Iron”), Roberta Flack (“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”) and Nine Inch Nails (“Hurt”).
With all the accolades and all the adulation from fans, Cash has managed to find a place for himself where he can accept the fame and enjoy it. When asked for advice to pass on to songwriters who hope to fine a measure of his success, he replies “You know I can remember that Ernest Tubb said the three-chord ballad is the back-bone of country music, and I find this still to be true. Country music has stretched out now, with chords and arrangements, but it’s the three-chord ballad that is still the backbone of country music, and I find this still to be true. Country music has stretched out now, with chords and arrangements, but it’s the three-chord ballad that is still the backbone of the industry.
“I would also try to give them the advice I’ve given myself over the years – keep it simple. Write as clearly and plainly as you can, keep the title evident in the song, and try to convey your feelings in a simple, honest and straightforward way.”
In February of 2000, Cash received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his “prolific work.” The proclamation sums up Cash’s career, stating that Cash’s is “truly one of the most influential figures in country music, and transcends both generations and musical genres.”