Cash on the Barrelhead

After a period of obscurity, Johnny Cash is once again a wanted man.

It was due in stores by July, but a lifetime of memories does not come easy to a man whose first hit came 41 years ago, when he was a member of a Sun Records roster that included Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and a boy named Elvis. So the world will have to wait a few more months, likely till January, for Johnny Cash to put his memories to tape recorder, for a writer to take those recordings and transcribe them to paper, and for Harper San Francisco to take that paper and turn it into a book. A few months, after all, is nothing in the grand scheme of Johnny Cash's enormous life--the blink of a blink of an eye, really, especially when there are more important things to be concerned about than telling the same old stories one more time.

Cash didn't even want to write his life story. He's already got the boxed sets and the sur-geries to remind him of his age and mortality; and he's already got the one book--1975's Man in Black, released by a religious publishing house around the time Cash got off the pills and got hooked on Jesus--to explain a life lived well and lived hard. Plus, Cash shrugs, he gets tired pretty easily these days, those 65 years (Lord, is that all?) catching up with him; better he spend a day fishing than remembering all over again those Million Dollar Quartet sessions or the day he wrote "Folsom Prison Blues" or the time he got busted in El Paso for smuggling Dexedrine over the border.

"Man in Black was written for Zondervan--a Bible publisher, a religious publisher--and so many companies wanted me to write a book that would cover the secular rather than the spiritual side of my life," Cash says from his Nashville-based offices, the House of Cash. "I just never really have wanted to do another book, and I was determined that I wasn't going to until this past year. Two or three big companies were really interested, and somebody finally made an offer I guess I couldn't refuse. On top of that, Billy Graham called me up out of the clear blue sky and said, 'I wish you would write a book.' And I said, 'What would you want me to write about?' And he said, 'About your life and experiences.' He said, 'You should do it now, while you've got the energy to do it, while you feel like doin' it.'

"And I'm enjoyin' some of it. Some of it's fun, but some of it's painful. It's painful to go into the amphetamine years, when there was so much damage to my psyche and my spirit and the people around me. It's painful remembering that all over again, dragging that back through. But there's a lot of funny things and interesting things that have happened that were definitely not covered in Man in Black, and I'm enjoyin' writin' 'em.

"But the book comes at a time when I'm really havin' trouble squeezin' in the time for it. It's been hard to find time for everything I want to do and still have a little time left over for me--which I made my first priority. I made an agreement with my God and my wife and myself that I would take care of myself first and that all the rest would follow. It's hard to find time to take a week or two off to go fishin' or whatever when there's so much that people want from you."

Cash is not complaining. Not at all. He is, in fact, grateful to be so busy and to find his time limited by the demands of others. Just a few years ago, the man who once wrote "Wanted Man" with Bob Dylan was anything but--merely another country-music legend who suited up for the old-timer games, a museum display who performed in front of the fanatics who only wanted to hear "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "A Boy Named Sue," and "Folsom Prison Blues" for the thousandth time. With wife June Carter and the Carter Family behind him, Cash would hit the road and play the dinner theaters and the honky-tonk theme parks--the Six Flags and Billy Bob's of this world. And, sure enough, he'd walk through the hits and moan through the misses, wrap himself in Old Glory and sing to Jesus Christ; he was doing his part for God and Country.

Somewhere along the way, Cash--like fellow Highwaymen Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, as well as George Jones and so many other country greats--slipped from superstar status to become a cult icon. He and Nelson were no longer welcome on the labels on which they became legends (both have long since been exiled from Columbia Records); instead, they were banished to rock labels (Cash to Rick Rubin's American Recordings and Nelson to Island Records). Nelson was even forced to hawk records on television (where he sold a rarities boxed set a few years ago). Both men are ignored by age-discriminatory country radio, exiles in their homeland. Never mind that they are shoved out of the way for pretty-boy thirty-year-olds--mere children who are pale and unformed imitations of legends that Cash and Nelson knew and performed alongside. They're turned into oldies acts even after proving they're capable of producing new work that rivals any old favorite.

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