On January 1st, 2013, I was given the chance to interview Johnny Cash's daughter Kathy Cash-Tittle. For over an hour she graciously answered my questions and shared some stories about her father. It was an amazing experience, and I feel like there will be some stories that even the oldest Cash fans never heard, printed here for the first time. I'm sincerely thankful to Kathy Cash, who was wonderfully friendly and made the first day of the new year one that I will never forget.
Interview by: Jeff Emond
Did Johnny Cash always have a broad acceptance of different genres of music and musical artists?
Always. He loved every type of music you could imagine. He was interested in everything from rock, to pop, gospel, country, you name it, he liked it. He would always research music, too. He’d tell the women who worked at his office, “Here’s some money go buy me all the top 10 [songs on Billboard the charts.]” He studied music like he studied the Bible, like he studied everything else.
Was he into any specific genre most of all?
When he had downtime and listened to [music] for enjoyment, he would listen to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Blind Boys of Alabama… it was usually gospel.
What was his favorite gospel group?
The Blind Boys of Alabama.
Do you have a favorite song of your father’s?
Of all his songs I have three that I can listen to forever and ever. “Flesh and Blood,” “Forty Shades of Green,” and “I Walk the Line.” Contrary to what some people might think, he did write “I Walk the Line” for my mom, and I think it’s beautiful. I think those are all so artistic and poetic. I remember being little and I thought “Home of the Blues” was such an incredible song; I could picture all of it. “Forty Shades of Green” turned out to be funny because after going to Ireland, when I was probably 18 or 19, we went to a pub to have lunch and someone recognized dad—of course everyone knew him, it was in the 70s. And the man said “Someone said you wrote ‘Forty Shades of Green.’” And [Johnny] said, “I did.” And the man said “That’s a classic Irish folk song.” And [Johnny] said, “I wrote it” and the man said “No you didn’t” and they argued about it. There’s just something about that song that makes you picture every single bit of it. When Johnny and [Vivian] first went to Ireland, Johnny looked out the window of the airplane and said, “Oh my God, there has got to be forty shades of green!” and he wrote that down on a yellow legal sized notepad he always carried on him.
What style of music do you cherish most?
I’m into all kinds of things. I’ve got everybody from Bonnie Raitt to Led Zeppelin to 70s hip. As far as dad’s music. . . I can listen to the old stuff without being emotional, because it’s from when I was a kid; it still makes me feel good and it’s comforting. But the older stuff, when he was older and he got sick—it’s hard for me to watch the “Hurt” video and it’s hard for me to listen to those songs. And when he died [Hurt] was playing everywhere, and few weeks after he died John Carter and I went to accept the award for the song. That one is hard for me to watch because it wasn’t long before dad and June would pass away. A lot of people don’t know this, but [Johnny] was pretty much blind the last couple of years that he was alive, and he was in a wheelchair. The first time he showed me “Hurt” was in his office. I just started crying and he asked, “What’s the matter, honey?” And I said, “It’s so sad but it’s beautiful!” He said, “Aw, that’s art! It’s part of life.” I said, “I know, but watching it is really hard.” He said, “Look at it from an artistic point of view.” He was trying to talk me out of being upset, but it’s hard to watch. That was obviously his goodbye song, he did record several after that, but that was hard. I still have a little trouble watching it. I can look at pictures of dad when he was young and it doesn’t affect me like it does when I see pictures of when he was older. To me he was two different people, he was daddy and then he was Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash was the public guy and daddy was daddy—he was so different at home I never thought about it much until we left home and [fans] would be waiting outside the gates.
Is there a specific time period of Johnny Cash’s music you like the most?
I didn’t like Mercury too much—he didn’t either. I didn’t like that period of his music. I was disappointed because I knew he wasn’t doing things that he wanted to do. I was working in dad’s publishing company at the time and he would just get so frustrated. “They won’t let me do what I want to do.” So Sun, Columbia, and of course Rick Rubin’s years are all important to me. I don’t pay much attention to [Mercury]. I’m sure Mercury won’t be happy.
Johnny Cash has recorded some powerful political songs like "Don't Go near the Water." Did they have special meanings to him?
Yes. He was very careful about how he chose his words [when speaking] publically about the world and what was going on, but he talked about it a lot at home. He woke up every morning between 4 and 5 thirty and the last 3 or 4 years that he was alive I spent the night over there with him and June at least 3 or 4 times a week and we’d—it was pretty funny—he’d walk by my room and cough really loud or do something to make sure I’m awake. Then when he got in the wheelchair he’d just holler. We would have coffee and watch CNN every morning for about an hour and then he’d turn the TV off and talk about [the news]. Then he’d say “Okay, let’s go shake that off. Let’s go outside.” So we’d go outside and listen to the birds, and he’d throw his head back and just listen to all the nature sounds. We’d talk about different things, but when CNN was first turned off, he’d always comment on what was going on. He knew exactly what was going to happen.
In March 2002 we watched CNN and President Bush was on there and he turned the TV off and looked in my direction and said, “Baby, I’m really, really worried.” I said, “About what, dad?” He said, “This President’s going to take us to war.” I said, “It sounds like it, doesn’t it?” And he said, “No, he’s going to take us to war and it’s going to be hard. I worry and I pray and I cry for my children, my grandchildren and even my great grandchildren, because killing never solves anything.” He said, “It causes a lot more problems and that’s just not something I believe in.” I said, “Yeah, I know. I don’t either.” He said, “I’m not going to be here, but I really worry about what’s going to happen when [Bush] takes us to war. It wasn’t long after that [Bush took us to war]. I was with dad the morning it was announced and he said, “I told you this was coming. It’s going to bad.” We talked about it for a little while and he said, “Let’s go shake it off. Let’s go outside.” So we went outside and listened to the bird. You know that line in “Flesh and Blood” when he says that “A Cardinal sang just for me and I thanked him for the song?” It never failed, he did this every time we’d go outside--he’d always throw his head back and close his eyes and just listen and I’d be really quite out there with him, and he’d open his eyes and say, “Thank you!” The first time he did it I [asked], “Who are you talking to, dad?” He [asked], “You didn’t even hear those birds sing for us, did you?” I was ashamed, I said, “No, I was looking at squirrels and wasn’t paying attention.” He said, “Honey, you got to pay attention. If you don’t spend a few minutes with nature each day you’re losing something.” After that, every time he’d close his eyes and listen he’d always holler, “Thank you!” and he was thanking the birds for their song. So that line in “Flesh and Blood” is true, he really did thank the birds, and I thought that was pretty sweet.
Many people say that it was during Johnny Cash’s tour of Vietnam that he adopted a pacifist stance towards war, is this true?
Well, he was like that before, but I think when he went to Vietnam it really hit him—it really got to him. He was so upset when he came back; he talked about men that had shrapnel in them, and [how] they had used Agent Orange, and all these things that he was just horribly baffled by, and he really became more vocal about it. He saw firsthand what kind of harm and damage it was doing, and the families that were being affected, and the men and the women that were over there fighting. And he said, “For what? For what, why are we here? This is just senseless to me.” He did become more vocal about it, but he was really careful in public about what he said, because he had been to the White House and met every president since the 60s, and he was trying to appear to be in the middle line, but he really wasn’t. He was completely against war; he was completely against fighting because of someone else’s religion when they had been fighting for centuries over it.
He said, “[Vietnam is] none of our business, we have no business being over there.” He said, “We need to take care of our country, protect us, and that’s all we need to do—take care of us.” He said, “This is just senseless sending our young men up there and putting them in harm’s way when it’s not our fight.” He said, “I understand why some of the presidents feel that they should [go to war], but I still think it’s wrong, it’s just stirring up more hatred, aggression and violence.” He’d say, “Nothing good comes from violence.” And that’s true.
So when people in this last election and the election before, when people say, “If Johnny Cash were here, he’d be a republican!” and I thought, “He’d better not come back; Boy, you didn’t know him.” He certainly was not for a lot of the stuff that is going on, he’d be horrified. All over the world, he’d be horrified, but he knew it was coming.
Can you tell us something about Johnny Cash’s charity work?
He hardly told us anything that he did [for charity]. The only reason we knew anything was if the press showed up. But when dad died, [and I was] at the funeral home, I had at least four people come up to me and say, “Did you know that your dad changed my life?” and they were sobbing. I said, “No what do you mean?” One said, “He sent me to college. I was an A student, but my family didn’t have the money to send me to college.” I asked, “How did he know you?” He said, “Oh, I was so-and-so’s housekeeper’s son.” I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah I met him twice, and he paid for my college, and now I’m an attorney.” And I was like, “What, really?” And I heard that all day at the funeral home.
[Johnny Cash] and his friend, John Rollins—of Rollins Protective Services and Pest Control—they both had houses in Jamaica, and started the S.O.S. children’s village in Jamaica. Jamaica is so poverty stricken, that people all over Jamaica were finding little babies in the trash and abandoned in churches, so they started the S.O.S. children’s village in Jamaica. It started out with one house, two parents, and twelve children. Now it has spread like crazy. [Johnny Cash] supported and contributed to autistic children, [children with] cerebral palsy. . . God, I don’t’ know how many charities. He sent people to college that I didn’t even know about until he passed away. He did so much, it’s unbelievable. I remember in Nashville, he was going down the street, and there was a man sitting there was a man with one leg sitting there, but he was a veteran. Dad asked, “Where are you going?” The man said, “I’m trying to get to Vanderbilt, I think they’re gonna get me a prosthetic leg. I’m gonna have to pay a little bit for it, but my G.I. bill will pay for the rest.” I don’t know how much money my dad gave him, and then he told him to get in the car. [Cash] drove him to Vanderbilt and told the people [at Vanderbilt] to send the bill to him and to fit [the veteran] with the best leg they have. He just did stuff like that all the time.
He was such a sweet man. He never told anybody about most of the [charity work] he did. I found out a lot after he passed away. I got letters saying, “Because of you, I started by own business . . . or thanks to you I became partners with. . .” He was really, really tender-hearted. Uncle Tom, dad’s younger brother, tells a story about when in the late 50’s [Johnny Cash] had just come into money, and he was playing at a high school. [Johnny] was in a locker room, and Tom asked “What are you doing?” Johnny said, “I’m looking in these lockers.” Tom asked, “What for?” Johnny said, “The most worn-out pair of shoes I can find.” Uncle Tom asked, “What are you doing that for?” Dad said, “To find who needs new shoes the worst.” So he kept looking until he found them, then he left a hundred dollar bill in locker with the most worn-out shoes. He always did stuff like that.
What were Johnny’s religious views; I understand he was always nonjudgmental in his views.
[Johnny Cash was] very [nonjudgmental]. He never tried to preach to anybody or anything like that. He said, “Example is the best way, and I always feel that I always do the best I can.” And when asked what religion he was, he’d say “Southern Baptist,” because that’s how he was raised. But he’d usually say, “I’m just Christian, I just believe in Jesus Christ. That’s all I know, I don’t have all the answers.”
What were his thoughts when he recorded the audiobook, Eye of the Prophet, which combines Christian, Islamic and Buddhist philosophies?
He believed in all of that. He believed in whatever was good for an individual, as long as they believed in something. He’d say, “I just think it’s good to believe in a higher power, it doesn’t matter who it is—if it’s Buddha, Jesus, a guru, whoever. It’s important that everyone believe in someone higher than themselves.” He encouraged us [children] to. . . like, one time, Rosanne was reading a book when we were in our teens on reincarnation. He walked in and asked, “Are you interested in that?” She said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well then read everything you can about it—learn all you can about it.” She asked, “Do you believe in reincarnation?” He said, “No, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. You need to make up your own mind about what you believe in.” I was reading Edgar Cayce books around the same time, and we talked about prophets. He said, “You know the bible talks about false prophets.” I said, “Yeah I know.” He said, “There is one I truly believe in—Edgar Cayce fascinates me.” I said, “Daddy, you just said you don’t believe in prophets.” He said, “Well, I believe that Edgar Cayce had a gift from God and used it for the well-being of everyone he could reach.” And he loved talking about [Cayce] and read all his books. He was very versatile with being open to anything. He made his mind up for himself. But there were a lot of people who really fascinated him, and he didn’t question them or think they were the work of the devil or whatever. I remember when I was working in the publishing company he wrote that song, “You’re so Heavenly Minded you’re No Earthly Good.” He walked in with the lyrics and the tape and asked, “Can you get this published for me?” I said, “Okay. That’s an interesting title.” He said, “Well, it’s a true title. We’ve all met those people that think they’re so high-and-mighty they can’t do good for anybody else.” I said, “That’s true.” He said, “Well, that’s what I wrote that about.” He said, “You have to live what you believe in, you can’t just say it and expect people to believe. I don’t have any use for people who talk about [doing good], but do nothing to help each other.” He wrote “What on Earth Will You Do for Heaven’s Sake” around the same time, and I published that song, too.
Was it different having a dad who was and is a celebrity?
A lot of people have asked me since I was born, “What is it like to have Johnny Cash for a dad?” I don’t know anything else, it felt normal to me. I guess I realized in the 70s how famous he really was, it kind of took me by surprise. I thought, “Well, I live in California, I spend summers with him and Christmas and whenever he comes to spend time with us.” But to me he was just dad and I didn’t know anything else. I don’t think I realized how big of a celebrity he really was until I was in my teens.
Most of my memories are all family memories and great times that we had and great talks that we had. I really miss him. He was the smartest man I ever knew—and not just because he was my dad, [but] because he was. From what I’ve seen, it seems that Johnny’s family, June’s family, and Vivian’s family were very close.
My mom [Vivian] was understandably really hurt at first; [the hurt] lasted a little while. But she was such a good mom [and she] wanted her whole life to be a mother, and [she] did the best job she could. She set [all the problems] aside. I have pictures of mom and her husband at dinner with dad and June and all of us at dad’s house. Dad game to graduations, sometimes June came sometimes she didn’t, but it was never an issue if she did. John Carter came to my mom’s funeral. June always said, “There’s no stepchildren in this family; they’re all our children.” I remember Rosey [Nix Adams]—June’s daughter—staying at our house in Venture for three weeks at a time, she loved my mom. Of course, she loved us, too. We were a very well blended family. I think it was very successful the way they made sure all of us were sisters, all of us were family. We didn’t act weird or awkward [around each other.] It’s impressive when you’re a kid and you think, “How’s all this going to work out?” And then they get in the same room and everything’s just fine and you think, “Thank God that worked!”
There was so much love for us [children] from dad and mom and June that there just wasn’t any hateful, nasty stuff that a lot of families go through. I never heard dad say one bad thing about mom, and I never heard mom say one bad thing about dad—ever. She loved him until she died and she would value that. She was respectful and June was respectful and it was good. [Vivian] came to Tennessee after June died—it was in July, June died in May—and she had a two hour visit with dad. Vivian asked me to take her to dad, and I said, “Sure I’ll be glad to.” I called dad to ask how he was feeling, he said “I want to see Vivian.” So I brought her up there and they laughed and they talked. But of course, it started off a little somber, mom told him how sorry she was about June and they both cried for a few minutes. Then dad said, “Okay, let’s talk about something else.” They talked about different things and mom said, “I’ve written a book that I don’t want to publish unless you say it’s okay.” He said, “Vivian, if anybody should write a book, it should be you. Of course it’s okay.” And he gave her his blessing and wrote it on paper. She said, “I don’t need it on paper.” He said, “Yeah, you will. Some publisher is gonna ask you for it.”
I tried to leave the room a couple times and they both said, “No stay, stay!” It was just me and dad and mom. I thought maybe they don’t want me to stay, maybe they have something to say to each other—but I stayed in there the whole time. It was really a sweet visit and I’m so glad she came to Tennessee and saw him, because he died in September.
What was it like performing with Johnny Cash?
I didn’t do that [for] long, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all. I’m not shy at all, but he put me on stage and my knees were knocking. I didn’t enjoy it at all. So he gave the opportunity: if you want to sing, sing; if you don’t, don’t. I [sang] four or five times and finally said, “This just isn’t me.” And he said, “That’s okay baby, if it’s not you, it’s not you.” So I sat it out. Rosanne, Carlene, Cindy and I all sang for a while, but I just didn’t enjoy it. I don’t know why, I just didn’t like being on a stage in front of thousands of people.
What was it like singing on the Johnny Cash Christmas special with all of his daughters and stepdaughters?
I remember it well. [Johnny Cash] was trying not to cry because Maybelle [Carter] had just died. We were at the Beverly Hills hotel and he came in to tell us that Maybelle had died, and were supposed to start filming the next day. I remember he and June talking about cancelling the show, and dad said, “If I do that, I’ve got a contract, and it is going to be a legal problem. What would I do? I’m fine with cancelling it if I need to but. . .” They talked about it for a long time, and finally he came in and said, “Okay girls, we’re gonna do this show. Then we’re all going to Tennessee for the funeral.” I remember the wardrobe department asking us about what we want to wear, let’s keep it all the same color, blah blah blah. I was like, “God, I don’t want to do this.” But I’m glad I did, because it meant a lot to dad. If you’ll notice at the beginning he says, “This year we’re doing this without Mother Maybelle Carter,” he was really trying not to cry. That was one of the few times I saw him cry—when Mother Maybelle died, when my grandma died, and of course when June died. I only saw him cry a few times, but I think that’s the first time I saw him cry. I thought that dad’s not going to do this [show] very well, but he did.
What was Johnny Cash like around Christmas?
Well, around Christmas, for the last several years, he wasn’t here. In November he would have a huge family dinner to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. We’d exchange presents, then [Johnny and June] would go to Jamaica until March because he couldn’t take the winter, [because] he had pneumonia. When he got in a wheelchair, he couldn’t go [to Jamaica]. [Johnny and June] would love being in [Jamaica] in warm weather while we were here freezing. They’d invite us to come down there for a week or so and hang out. But for the last three or four years they were here, because they needed to be taken care of. I stayed with them a lot; I finally talked dad in letting nurses stay [with him] around the clock.
A lot of people helped—my sisters came—we’d stay a week or two at a time. We were afraid; dad wasn’t feeling well and he was in a wheelchair. [Johnny and June] moved into and owned the house across the street [from where they lived] which had on level, which they bought my grandparents when they moved [to Tennessee] from California. When my grandparents died, [Johnny and June] kept the house. When dad [had to use] a wheelchair full-time, they moved into that house for a while and had an elevator put into the big house so dad could go down the floors in his wheelchair. But until then, it was pretty rough, because [Johnny] was pretty much stuck on the third floor. I’d say, “Come on daddy, let’s take a road trip.” And I’d get him and his chair and we’d go to Wal-Mart, or Lowe’s, or Walgreens or Sam’s Club. And I’d ask, “What are we looking for?” And he’d say, “Oh, I don’t know. We’ll know when we see it.”
I remember he thought it was fun and he came back with a ton of Simpsons stuff. He gave everybody cool Simpsons stuff that Matt Groening signed. I still have what dad gave me, and my kids do too. We all had an autographed cartoon picture of the Simpsons and he gave my son a Simpsons chess set. He gave me a Simpsons day planner. He gave us all a bunch of stuff, it was all really cool. When I saw the episode, I thought it was just great. He thought [The Simpsons] was funny, he liked [the show]. He [would] brag, “They asked me to be on The Simpsons.” I asked, “What are you going to play?” He said, “I don’t know; I think a dog or something.” I said, “Well that’s interesting.” Then he ended up being the coyote, and I thought that was better than a dog.
Did he like acting and his acting roles?
He loved acting. He basically played himself. I was on the Columbo set when he did that, and he really enjoyed that. Before that he did Westerns and Five Minutes to Live which was just God-awful. But he really liked [acting] after he did Columbo, and he said, “That was so much fun. I really like this for something different. I get to stay in the same place for a while.” I was there when he did Murder in Coweta County.
Do you remember anything about his movie with Eli Wallach, "The Pride of Jesse Hallam"?
He really did a great job on [The Pride of Jesse Hallam]. He actually got into the role so much that, weeks before [the movie was filmed], he was sounding out words and trying to find out what it felt like to not be able to read. He was really playing that part at home. After he did that movie, I volunteered to be a teacher at the Literacy Council in Summer County, which was a great experience for me. I got to teach people to read, which was nice. He inspired me to do that from the movie. I didn’t realize how many people illiterate people we have in this state (Tennessee). It was shocking, so I helped the Literacy Council for about a year, [and] then I developed a tremor disorder and had to quit. But I really enjoyed [teaching], and I might [join a Literacy Council] again. There was even a little eighty-year-old man there trying to learn how to read, and it was really inspiring to see someone that old try to learn how to read. It’s a great thing that [the Literacy Council does].
What do you think about the Johnny Cash museum coming to Nashville?
I’m excited about it; I think there should be something to honor dad in Nashville. There’s not much. There’s a mural downtown, and different artists honor him, but I think [the museum] is going to be really successful. Bill Miller has collected [Cash items] since he was a kid, and I know for a fact he has the largest collection of [Cash items] for any one person. [Bill Miller] is doing something really good, and I think it is important that dad gets honored in [Nashville].
Can you tell us anything about your website and store?
My poor blog, I let it go for a long time. I just started writing again a few weeks ago. On my website is an online store. There are some pretty cool things you can buy through that. It’s been there four or five years. For the most part, I’m pretty happy with what we have.
I understand your husband, Jimmy Tittle, worked for Cash. Is that how you met him?
Actually, [Jimmy] worked for Merle Haggard in the 70s and I met him through my sister Rosey. I was a single parent, and I had little guitar pulls at my house. We’d have maybe fifteen or twenty people; I wanted to keep it small because my house was small. And I had a small son, and I didn’t want him up all night. So I would have these dinners and guitar pulls, and Rosey brought Jimmy one night, and that’s how we met. We were really good friends for a few months before we started dating.
[Jimmy] worked with Merle Haggard—he was one of the Strangers in the 70s. Then he came back to Nashville and worked with The Carter Family and a bunch of other people. We became friends, and he started hanging out at my house a lot. We’d go bowling, go out to dinner. . . at lot of stuff like that. Dad called one day and said, “I hear you know Jimmy Tittle.” I said, “Yes, sir, he’s standing right here.” Johnny said, “You’re kidding.” I asked, “Why?” He said, “I need a bass player.” I said, “Do you want to talk to him?” He said, “Yeah.” Dad was going to do Saturday Night Live in two or three week. Johnny said, “I don’t know what I’m going to sing from night to night, so just listen to my records and learn what you can.” Jimmy got off the phone and said, “Oh my God! How many records do you have of your dad?” I said, “All of them.” And he said, “I need all of them. I think he’s going to test me.” I said, “Knowing dad he will.” A couple weeks later we went to New York City and Jimmy was on Saturday Night Live, and that was one of his first gigs. [Jimmy] worked with [Johnny Cash] until we got married and had two children; he quit shortly after our daughter was born. When dad started working with Rick Rubin, he used [Jimmy] for every session. [Jimmy] played bass, sang harmony. . . he was at every session. They were really good friends. It was very sweet that dad would call him and say, “James, what are you doing?” Jimmy would say, “Nothing, John,” and Johnny would say, “Want to take a road trip?” Then he and Jimmy would go somewhere like Lowe’s and just look around or to the studio. It hit Jimmy as hard as it hit me when dad died.
Is Jimmy Tittle currently working on any new music?
He’s always doing something. He’s been producing, and he has a couple things going. One is a book he’s working on. He has a nice little setup here with equipment. He’s not actually working on a new album right now, [but] he’s working on some songs that he started a while back. We just moved last year, and it’s been a lot of transition getting rid of things and storing things. He has a website with some of his videos there.
I had one last question: I know that Johnny Cash was an avid reader. Did he have a favorite author or book?
He was into books about the Civil Wars and prisons. His library was huge. He had thousands of books in his office, and he said to me one time, “You know, I’ve read every one of these books?” I said, “I don’t doubt it.” He said, “Some of them I’ve read twice.” He read up on Roman history. He was a real buff on several different things. He loved anything he could get his hands on about history and the saints—of course he wrote The Man in White about Paul—it took him nine years to write that. He loved books, and he had read every one of them.
For more information on Kathy Cash, you can visit her website.