When I arrived
in Nashville in the mid-seventies, country music had long since lost its
innocence and was well on its way to losing its soul. Willie Nelson
had salvaged his old Martin guitar and a pound of pot from his burning
home and moved back to Texas a few years before. The only other bright
spots in an otherwise moribund country scene were Waylon Jennings, and
the wild bunch that hung out over at Tompall Glazer's off-Music Row studio
and, even farther off the beaten path, at Jack Clements' place on Belmont,
where the musicians ground their teeth and cranked out songs until
the sun came up
over the Cumberland River and drove them back to their lairs.
As exciting as all
that was to a nineteen-year-old apprentice outlaw, there was one thing
that bothered me: Where the hell was Johnny Cash?
I was told. "Up on the lake. He don't get to town much these
days." Not owning a car at the time, I was no closer to meeting my
hero than I had been back home in Texas.
When I was growing
up, Johnny Cash was a lot of people's hero, or more accurately, antihero;
most people believed, erroneously, that he had served time in prison.
(That was Merle Haggard.) It just so happened that the record that
had made Cash a household name was recorded in California's
Prison before a live inmate audience.
He became my hero
in 1969 when I saw him perform every week on his own network-television
show. Most intriguing, to me, was his choice of guests: Neil young,
Linda Ronstadt, Bob Dylan. Growing up in Texas, listening to country
music and rock 'n' roll, I had always been an outsider in both camps.
John's show made me feel a little less like an alien.
When Columbia Records,
Cash's home for most of his career, unceremoniously dropped him from its
roster in the mid-eighties, those of us who were paying attention realized
that we were witnessing the last gasp of everything we held dear about
the music we loved. By 1987, when I finally met John (as he's known
by his friends), his music hadn't been played on country radio in over
a decade. We were backstage at a benefit in Nashville. He kindly
told me that my Little Rock 'N' Roller was one of his favorite songs.
I felt ten feet tall. As it turned out, my life and career were heading
for a twist or two of their own. The timing of our meeting was impeccable,
and Johnny Cash would become my hero all over again.
When you lead a charmed
life – and believe me, I have – your teachers reveal themselves when you're
ready for the lesson. From Johnny Cash, I learned how an artist carries
himself when the industry stops returning phone calls. And that if you
have something to say and you keep on saying it loud and true, then people
John, I'm watching
every move you make.