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Posted by on in Interviews

Earl Poole Ball was gracious enough to sit down with me and discuss his beginnings, his time with Johnny Cash--and a plethora of other music legends--and his latest work, the great Pianography album.  It was a real treat to sit down with country music’s finest piano player for a couple hours on September 23, 2014 and January 9, 2015 to complete this interview for the Johnny Cash Infocenter.

 

Interview by: Jeff Emond

 

How did you get in the music business?

 

[When] I went into the music business I was young, and I had learned how to play the piano.  My mother had told me said if I took some lessons I’d be popular at parties.  And so I took piano lessons, and I enjoyed playing the piano.  I didn’t like classical music that much but I learned to play the pop songs through a chord book.  

 

Then these guys but a band together around Columbia, Mississippi, and they asked me to play with them, so I did.  I didn’t necessarily think that was what I would be doing for living, because I had other interests.  I wanted to go to college to study law, or theatre arts, or maybe some other stuff.  I liked political science when I was a teenager.  And then I got involved with this band, and I saw it was a pretty easy way to make money.  They were a little country-rockabilly band.  They were called the Hillcats.  Then I got involved with a lady and wound up marrying her, playing piano at night.  I dropped out of college, though I should have stayed in college and not got married.  But we make these mistakes when we’re young, we all do.  That’s what I was doing for a couple years in Mississippi.  

 

I’d been working with Jimmy Swan, a popular disc jockey there.  I got a job with him playing his TV show when I was a senior in high school, and then playing with him after I graduated.

 

So that’s how I became a piano player: it didn’t leave me any time to do anything else.  I just sort of drifted along with it.  

 

My marriage had gone bad in Mississippi so I moved to Texas for three years.  My father gave me two hundred dollars and a bus ticket one-way to Houston, Texas, and told me to get out of Mississippi and make something out of myself.   I played in Texas and became friends with Mickey Gilley.  I played there with a friend of mine who actually sang a lot of Johnny Cash tunes and helped me get that Memphis-style piano down.

 

I was pretty much in the music business just for a living at that time.  I was enjoying it, because as a young man I learned to drink beer and party a lot, and it went along with the job.  [Laughs.]  

 

Where you always attracted to country music?

 

Rock n’ roll and country, and rockabilly.  I played some blues with different people.  I love the blues.

 

What was it like to make your first album?

 

Well, my first recording, which wasn’t an album, was made in Houston with Mickey Gilley producing me.  He wanted to give me a chance.  I took the record to radio stations around Houston, and I got some air play and moderate success.  

 

After three years in Texas, I had moved to California, I got a job at the Palmino Club, which was world famous at the time for being the top country music club in the nation.  Then I became a member of a band called Red Rose and the Detours and everybody in the band got a chance to make a record for Crown Records.  They way they made those albums, they were kind of knock-off things.  You would record a really popular song, then you would fill the rest of the album up with your own original tunes, which you still owned the rights to.  So all the members of that band who sung and played recorded an album.  So for my album, the song “Love of the Common People” was popular by Waylon Jennings at the time.  I sang that song, then I filled the rest of the album up with originals.  I think we recorded each album in about two hours.  Then I didn’t cut another album for a long time.  

 

I recorded another one, first on cassette tape, called Earl Poole Ball and His Honky Tonk Piano.  It’s on my website store now.  I made the album while I was touring with Johnny.  Half of it is made of piano instrumentals, the other half is rockabilly.  A good cut on the album with “Crazy Arms” and there’s a great gospel tune there called “I’ve Got Jesus in My Soul.”

 

So let’s go back to California.  I jam sessions on the weekend with my own band called The Sessioneers.  We played The Aces Club on Friday and Saturday nights, and it was a big deal.  A lot of people came from San Diego and the large surrounding areas.  We started around 3:00 a.m. in the morning.  It was fun, but it was tiring.  I did it for about five years.  During that time, I got to know Cliffie Stone, who was a record producer and publisher.  He hired me to work at his publishing company, and that became my day job.  It was a great training ground.  Later on, I became a producer at Capitol Records.  I was also recording with Buck Owens and the Buckaroos at the time.  I was also working with Gram Parsons, on the International Submarine Band album, then Parsons pulled me over to record The Sweetheart of the Rodeo album with The Byrds.  I also cut a couple of tunes with The Flying Burrito Brothers.

 

I was with Capital in Texas until 1972, until I moved to a branch of Capitol Records in Nashville and worked there for about three years.  I moved because of the company.  I wouldn’t want to go on my own, I loved my California existence.  Then I met Johnny Cash through Harland Howard and Don Davis, and Cash asked me to join his band.  I put it off for about a year because I was enjoying playing sessions and not traveling, but then Cash made it such a good situation that I left Capitol Records and soon went to work with Cash.

 

Did Johnny hear a song that convinced him that you had to be his pianist?

 

I don’t know if there was a particular song.  I came into his picture when Don Davis, who had brought Cash the “One Piece at a Time Song.”  I demoed “One Piece at a Time” with the guy who wrote it.  I don’t know if he heard my piano playing on that or not, but Don Davis was producing “One Piece at a Time” with Johnny.  When I came back, he was producing Look At Them Beans and shortly after that he was doing The Rambler.  Cash had heard me play, and he really, really liked that I knew that Sun style of music.  The piano player he had at the time was getting ready to leave and form a gospel group.  

 

Don Davis was instrumental, because he worked with both Harland Howard and the music company owned by Tree.  He was also producing Johnny.  Davis was an ex-brother-in-law of Johnny; he had been married to Anita Carter.  He found some songs for Johnny, and Johnny was grateful that he did, so we recorded out of Johnny’s House of Cash Studios.  Johnny liked having his own studio.  

 

Do you remember the first song you played with Johnny?

 

I think it was one of the songs on Look At Them Beans, but I can’t remember which one.  

 

One album I wanted to talk about is one that is almost a cult-favorite, one that you produced, Rockabilly Blues.  How did that come about?

 

I had a song recorded by Johnny called “I Don’t Think I Can Take You Back Again.”  That song did two things.  It looked like Johnny’s contract was coming to an end with Columbia.  I went up to see Rick Blackburn.  I told that I had heard the rumor that Johnny was leaving the label.  I said, “I’ve got this great recording that he did called ‘I Don’t Think I Can Take You Back Again’ and I think it would be a great single if Johnny does leave the company.  I just want you to consider it, because I know you’ll want to release more Cash songs like Sun did even if he goes to a different label”   Blackburn looked at me quizzically.   It was a very stupid thing for me to do, but maybe it helped.  I was still naive at the time--I’m still not over naivety yet!  

 

I thought that I did the best I could for the song: I was the publisher, the writer and composer.  I left, and before long they wanted Johnny to do another album.  I don’t know if it was because I had been there, or they changed their mind about dropping him from the label.  Cash asked me to produce the record, and we started cutting some good songs.  

 

Then one day, we were walking down the street, he and I, going to our cars from the studio.  And I said, “Johnny, we’re doing these good songs but what are we doing to call this album?  Rockabilly something?”  He said, “Blues.  Rockabilly Blues.  Let’s call it that.”  So the title came after we started recording.  Then Cash wrote a song called Rockabilly Blues to have a song of that title on the record.  This was in the day before people did albums with great tunes just for the heck of having a great album.  Before, it seemed most of the artists in Nashville were getting a hit single and putting mediocre material around it to make an album.  But Rockabilly Blues changed that because it became an album with great tunes, but not big single.  But they learned that they had to promote an album as an album, and not just a collection of songs that could be singles.  

That’s how that came about.  Johnny asked me to do it and I did it.  He had a track that had been recorded with his son-in-law in England, Nick Lowe, and he had Jack Clement do a couple tracks.  We were challenged to add Bob Wootton and W.S. Holland to the Nick Lowe tune, and put proper sounding Johnny Cash electric guitar on that.  I worked with a very skilled engineer who managed to make it all gel together--he was fifty percent of the whole thing.  And Johnny had a lot of input, so I was mainly helping to keep everything coordinated.  I wish I had written a song for it, but I wasn’t writing much at the time.

 

It was really highly rated.  It was one of the top ten albums of the 1980s in Country Music Magazine.  Another album I produced with Merle Haggard, Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player, was also selected as one of the top ten.  I figured I wasn’t going to be able to top myself, so I might as well play the piano and travel around and see the world with Johnny, and have a good time.  That was about the same time I got my last divorce, and I was ready for a good time.

 

Did Rockabilly Blues feel like a hit album while making it?

 

It felt like something spectacular to me.  We had a Billy Joe Shaver tune, some Johnny tunes.  “The Twentieth Century is Almost Over” is one I thought would be a hit.  But Columbia just dropped the ball, they didn’t know how to promote that record.  That’s when I decided to quit being a producer

 

You played on the Gone Girl album?  

 

Yes.

 

One of my favorite songs on there that you play on is “Song for the Life.”

 

Oh, yes.  That leads us to another subject.  I think that was just me, Johnny and Rosanne Cash.  That lead to a whole different chapter of my life.  Peter Bogdanovich, the movie producer, was a big fan of Johnny’s.  Peter was doing a movie in New York called Everybody Laughs.  Peter heard “Song for the LIfe” while he was doing this movie, and it came about that wanted to use “I Don’t Think I Can Take You Back Again” sung by Johnny Cash in the movie.  Some coordinators called.  I said of course they could use it, I gave them a decent little price, nothing they couldn’t afford.  Then I told them during a phone call that you don’t just need my song, you need me to come up and play the piano, I want to be in your movie!  They said really, what’s some of the stuff you’ve done?  I said that I’ve done some production and played on a lot of Johnny Cash records.  

 

It turns out, “Song for the LIfe” was a favorite of Peter Bogdanovich, he loved that song.  So I had a meeting with Peter in his suite at a big hotel in New York.  He decided he wanted to have me on to be the bandleader in his movie, and to help the singer.  She was an actress who could sing good, too, named Colleen Camp.  We played on the soundtrack for all of the songs.  That was a thrilling experience.

 

And that led to many small acting roles?

 

Yes it did.  I did Murder in Coweta County with Johnny because the bug bit me.  I also did The Pride of Jesse Hallam with Johnny.  Johnny would show up and know all of his lines, and seemed to be a natural.  Gary Nelson directed a lot of Cash’s movies.  Gary was a nice guy to work with, and he and his wife were really sweet.  He was a great director for John.  

 

And I did Texasville with Peter Bogdanovich.  It wasn’t a giant role but it paid really well, and I worked with Peter on some TV shows as well.  

 

Since you worked on Texasville and live in Texas, are you a fan of Larry McMurtry?

 

I’m a fan and I met him one time, when we were filming in New York.  He dropped by the set and I got to meet him.  I recorded with his son, James McMurtry, here in Austin.  He’s a good singer/songwriter.  I recorded two tunes on one of his albums about eight years ago.  

 

Johnny made the piano a prominent part of his live show.  How did that come to be?

 

Yeah, that just sort of fell into place.  It has the basic sound he liked from when he started in Memphis.  Johnny really liked the piano, and I played with him on a lot of the gospel sounds he was featured.  He especially liked the gospel sound on the piano.  He gave me a chance to sing and play some instrumentals, I played the “Tennessee Waltz” and “Last Date” a lot.  I’m glad that he liked it and kept me going.  Johnny and June became like family to me after a couple of years, they were just such great people.

 

Did you have a favorite song to play live?

 

I got the most reaction to “I’ve Got Jesus in My Soul.”  And “Music Box Dancer.”  People just seem to love that song.  I did it with a boogie-woogie part in the middle, then slowed it back down.  It was sort of a show piece, and Johnny had me play that everywhere: Europe, Australia, New Zealand.  Cash liked that for several years, and I think we wore it out a little bit.  

 

Did you meet any famous leaders or presidents?

 

I didn’t meet any presidents.  I met Billy Graham when Graham was in Nashville and John had me come down to have a meal.  I think we were at an Italian restaurant, and then I got to see him again at Johnny’s home.  That’s the most prominent person I think of, and Billy Graham sent me a Christmas card for years.

 

Do you remember doing many prison or Native American benefit concerts?

 

The first shows that I worked with Cash were prison concerts.  I think we did three in one day in California.  I started working with him in 1977, but I think it was at the end of 1976 that we played those concerts, as sort of an audition for me.  It was remarkable.   I did go into Folsom one time with Merle Haggard when I was working for Capitol Records in California.  But it was different this time with Johnny.  There were bigger audiences and Johnny played for the entire population of the center.

 

What can you tell us about Johnny’s activism or humanitarian work?

 

I remember going to Jamaica and playing there for an orphanage.  This was just before going to Europe, we went to Jamaica to raise some funds.  Hugh Waddell put together a fundraiser, Rock for the Animals, that was a fundraiser for animals.  We played that in Nashville.  I know Cash did a lot of individual humanitarian things.  He did some fundraisers for the Carter Fold out of Bristol. It was almost a humanitarian thing when we went to Czechoslovakia because those people really needed some sunlight in their lives.  But it was a paid performance situation.

 

Is there any live concert that you have a vivid memory of?

 

One of the concerts that really sticks out for me, maybe above all of them, is the very first Czechoslovakian concerts.  We did two days, and we played for over forty thousand people.  That’s on video.  

 

Is there any piece of advice Cash gave you that’s memorable?

 

Yeah, one in particular, and I think about it a lot when I have to go to the doctor.  Cash said, “Be careful of going to specialists, Earl.  Or else somehow they’ll figure out a way to work you into their speciality.”

 

There was one time in my career when I would have little panic attacks, and I’d feel like the stage was spinning around.  I went to a doctor for that, and he gave me medication that I took for maybe too long.  I decided it wasn’t the miracle drug I hoped it was, but something the doctor gave me to pacify me.  These panic attacks started on a freeway in California when big trucks surrounded me, and I had to pull over to the side of the road.  I had another in Nashville.  I finally got the right diagnosis and they recommended counseling.  

 

Sooner or later, I talked to Johnny about what was going on.  We had some important dates coming up that I felt I might not be able to make.  I was ready to change doctors to figure out what to do.  I told Johnny about what I was going through, and that I couldn’t make all these upcoming dates, but I’ll make what I can.  Johnny said, “Don’t worry about it Earl, make what you can.  I can handle it if you can.”  I never missed a paycheck, even when I had to get into a treatment situation.  I never missed a paycheck.  Johnny Cash was very loyal, and very caring about the people in his band.  He was always very, very good to his people.

 

It was such a pleasurable experience for twenty years.  At one point I got to thinking, when I was in my forties, that maybe I need to go to college now.  I told Lou Robin and W.S. Holland that.  I said maybe I need to go to school and figure out something else to do.  They both looked at me and said, “Earl, it’s too late now.”  I had an ideal job, and it was entertaining with different places, people and situations every day.  It wasn't like a job, the only hard part about it was traveling.  But the actual experience playing the shows, and being a part of a huge traveling family, was a really great experience for me.  And because I did that, at this point in my life I get enough work.  

 

Can you talk about how your latest record, Pianography, came about?

 

I had these songs laying around that I always wanted to record, some in my publishing company and some that I had written--all noteworthy songs.  A friend of mine who does record promotions, Terry Hendrix, suggested that I make a record.  She heard me singing in The Lucky Tomblin Band, a great that I was in.  She told me I had to make my own record, so I got the [recording] bug.  I had some extra money--lately I found out there’s no such thing as extra money--and I took the money and put it toward Pianography.  I got the band that I was playing with at the time, a rockabilly/blues band, with some great musicians in it, and we went into what I considered one of the best studios in sound.  Finally we got something acceptable down after mixing it three times, going through several different versions.  

 

Three or four of the tunes were recorded live a Johnny Cash tribute show, which were just part of the many that I did.  I didn’t even know they were being recorded.  I got my friend Lisa Morales to sing on it, she’s been my favorite gospel and blues singer forever.  I got a couple of other ladies to sing with me, [including] Cindy Cashdollar.  It was just something I felt I should do, though it was ridiculous for someone at my age.  I bought a ton of promotion with the press all over the world.  I didn’t take out ads, but I used a guy who does magazine promotions.  It went out mainly to Americana stations.  I don’t think stations that play the real country music got serviced that well, [but] I want to re-service it to those people.  In a sense, except for the few people who have heard it all the way through and got the message, it’s a lost cause.  If I had to do it all over again, I’d do the songs.  It’s the last production I’ll do, probably the last record I’m ever going to make.  People that have listened to Pianography more than once dig into it and they really like it.  

 

One song, “Something’s Gonna Get Us All,” is a really humorous song about mortality.  Did you write it?

 

No, it was written by a friend of mine, Bucky Lindsey.  I knew him from when I was in Nashville.  He’s a really great writer who writes a lot of blues.  He’s had some award-winning compositions.  He sent me a copy of “Something’s Gonna Get Us All” and I said, “Well that sounds great!”  So I learned it and taught it to my band, and we pretty much used his demo arrangement.  I like the song, I thought it was great for a good shuffle, and it as a great lesson, too.

 

You talk a bit about the musical horn arrangement on “Say You Love Me”?

 

Right at end [of the song] I put a Dixie Band thing together.  There’s a trombone and a tuba, and it fits in with the rest of the band.  That song had been written for a long time.  Joel Sonye and I wrote it years and years ago.  I thought it was a great song.  I got Julian Banks to sing that with me, she’s a really great singer.

 

The opening track, “Standing at the Edge of the World,” has some really cool whistling in it.

 

Jody Adere did the whistling.  She’s a girl who was in the band that we had, and she was a really good whistler.  The idea came about because she would whistle on stage.  She just started doing it one day, and I didn’t even know she could whistle.  And so, I got her to come in and whistle on it.

 

It’s a catchy song.

 

I always thought it was a catchy song.  Somebody might record that one of these days and have a big hit with it.  It has a lot of good verbal and musical hooks to it.

 

We talked about how the title track is autobiographical.  Were the songs “The Real Me” and “One of Those Old Things We All Go Through” also autobiographical?  

 

I wrote “The Real Me.”  It’s autobiographical too, but partly about me and partly about a friend I know.  I believe Joel Sonye and I wrote “One of Those Old Things We All Go Through” years ago, and it’s also autobiographical.

 

Sometimes I think that maybe, unless you’re a household name like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings or Johnny Cash, you shouldn’t even put out an autobiographical album.  A lot of people don’t have enough to read about you to know what you’ve been through and what you’ve done to know it’s an autobiographical presentation.

 

So what are you up to now musically?

 

Right now I play on Sundays nights with a band called Haybale.  We play from 9:45 to midnight on Sunday nights.  Tom Lewis organized the band and plays the drums.  Redd Volkaert is a preeminent electric guitar player.  Johnny Cox plays the steel guitar.  Dallas Wayne, a great singer, songwriter and disc jockey who hosts Willie’s Roadhouse on Sirius XM, plays the bass and sings.  Sometimes the original bass player for Willie Nelson plays the bass with us.  And I play the piano and sing.  It’s either a five or six piece lineup.  We play at the Continental Club, a preeminent kind of place in Austin.  It features rockabilly, country, and alternative music styles.  A lot of Americana acts come by there.

 

Last night I played with a band called Rick Broussard and Two Hoots and a Holler.  I just love playing with them.  I play with them once a month at a place called The High Ball.  He does a lot of cajun stuff.  He uses me to augment his band on one Thursday night a month.  Another band I play with is called Deuce Coupe.  Kevin Fox, a major songwriter for the group and a delightful and talented young man, has a drummer and a bass player that are some of the best rhythm section people that I’ve ever played with.  I work with them two or three times a month.  They work as a trio mainly, but for certain gigs they put me in.  Those are the main people I play with.  

 

I’m seventy-three years old.  It’s such a hassle to have your own band and keep them booked fully enough to keep the same people most of the time.  The nature of the beast here in Austin is one where very rarely will you have a really great guitar, drum or bass player, but very rarely will you have those particular three together.  All of them have other jobs and are in other bands.  You always have to call in substitutes, so nobody knows you original songs--you can only play the classics.  I’m in semi-retirement and I’ve abandoned the thought of having my own band for now.  I might want to create an all-girl band.  An old man and three beautiful women playing good music would be something kind of different--we might even be able to get work!  Without a hassle!  [Laughs.]   

 

Living here in Austin, I’ve noticed how the city is growing and changing from the city I moved to in 1999.  I floated around for about a year after Johnny quit touring and moved here because Dale Watson suggested that I should, and he was right.  I’m trying not to work a lot.  It kind of takes care of itself--if you don’t go out there and beat the bushes, people don’t think about you.  Other than that, I’m just hanging in there, trying to enjoy life a little bit.  I don’t have any major hobbies--music is my hobby.

 

What is one of your favorite books?

 

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks.  I’ve just read a Jerry Lee Lewis life story called Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg.  It’s a new book and it’s very, very good.  Jerry Lee told the co-author his story, and the author elaborated on what happened, where it happened, what happened next.  I mostly read biographies and autobiographies.  Buck Owens has one too called Buck ‘Em!, and I [have found] that my favorite readings are about entertainers.  There’s one called Unconquered: The Saga of Cousins Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Swaggart, and Mickey Gilley, written by J. D. Davis that I’ve read.

 

Thank you so much for your time.

 

Feel free to read our review of Pianography, or check out Earl Poole Ball's official website to keep up with tour dates and recordings.

 

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Posted by on in Interviews

On March 22, 2014, Dave Roe Rorick, Johnny Cash's bass player from 1992 to 2003, was generous enough to give the Johnny Cash Info Center an exclusive interview!  On behalf of myself and the JCI team, we would like to thank Mr. Rorick for his time and participation!

 

Interview by: Jeff Emond

 

1) When and how did you first meet up with Johnny Cash and become his bassist?

I met Johnny in the 80’s. I was playing in June’s daughter Rosie Carter’s band. I was called in '91 and offered the job in '92.

 

2) I understand that you started off with the electric bass, but now you primarily play upright.

I never played upright till I joined Johnny’s band. Learned on the job.

 

3) What was touring with Cash like after he signed on with Rick Rubin and the "American Recordings" label?

After the Rick Rubin thing started, we went from playing for mostly Johnny’s aging fans to playing a lot of everything-concerts, punk rock clubs, everything got a whole lot more rock and roll.

 

4) What songs did you record in the studio with Cash?  (We know you recorded "I'm on Fire" with Cash which has an awesome, driving bass part!)

I played on about a third of the Rick Rubin stuff. I couldn’t even begin to to tell you which ones.

 

5) How did you come to be a backup singer for Cash on songs like "Get Rhythm" during live shows?

I’ve always been in demand as a background singer. I went from being Vern Gosdin’s main background singer, to Johnny’s, and then on to Dwight Yoakam’s [background] singer. I make part of my living singing in the studio.

 

6) Did you have any favorite songs that you performed on stage?

I loved playing "Big River" and "I Walk the Line" the most.

 

7) What was it like playing at the England Glastonbury Festival in 1994?

Glastonbury was awesome! So many people-all really loving Johnny. Loved that gig and Royal Albert Hall the most.

 

8) How did you first discover Johnny Cash?

I’ve known his music since I was very young--my mom loved him.

 

9) What is your favorite Johnny Cash song?

Favorite song--Bottom of [the Mountain]. Favorite record--the first on on Sun.  [Which was "Cry, Cry, Cry" and "Hey Porter."]

 

10) Were there any routines that went on before or after a show?

Johnny was pretty much the same all of the time. Very comfortable with who he was.

 

11) You've recorded or performed with an impressive list of people.  Care to drop a few names and memories?

I have so many great memories from different points in my career.  It’s all so good!

 

12) Even though your website states that you're a session player, is there anyone you perform with regularly now?

I’m in a really good band with my dearest friend Kenny Vaughan--Marty Stuart’s guitar player. We play a lot of our own material. Every Monday night at a little place called 12 South Taproom. Big fun.

 

13) Are there any words of advice or wisdom that Johnny Cash shared with you that you wouldn't mind sharing with us?

One time when I had a really bad cold, Johnny gave me this advice--“Have a shot of liquor--it won’t make you feel better, but at least you’ll feel better!”

 

14) Johnny Cash is known for his humanitarian works.  Can you share experience with Cash on that topic?

I don’t know much about that stuff as it concerns Johnny, however, I do know that he was very intent on making sure that everyone around him was happy, in particular his family and his employees.

 

15) Are there any forthcoming projects or albums that you are featured on that you can tell us about?

I’m very involved with my band with Kenny--that’s number one with me right now.  I’m also involved with a musical that John Mellencamp has written with Steven King.  I’m also on Ray Lamontagne’s new album due out soon. Busy is what I really like to be.

 

For more information about Dave Roe, check out the official website for this legendary Nashville Bassist

 

dave-roe

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On September 27, 2013, Mr. Henry Vaccaro, Sr., a personal friend of Johny Cash, was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his relationship with The Man in Black for the Johnny Cash Infocenter.  On behalf of myself, and the entire JCI team, thank you Mr. Vaccaro, for taking the time to share some stories about John Cash! 

 

Interview by: Jeff Emond

 

When did you first meet Johnny Cash, what was it like?

 

I first met Johnny at a reception following a show at Garden State Arts Center here in New Jersey in 1973.  I was formally introduced to him in 1976 at a similar reception.  I was in the construction business but had just invested in [the] Kramer Guitar [company].  That next day Johnny introduced me to Bob Wootton at their hotel. I took Bob and Marshall to the Kramer factory only 5 miles away. They were so impressed that night on stage [that] Bob, Marshall and Jerry Hensley all played Kramer instruments.  Bob and I really hit it off and I invited he and Earl Poole Ball to Bimini Bahamas on a fishing trip.  Bob enjoyed it so much that he told Johnny about it so the following year Johnny, John Carter, Bob and I went back to Bimini on one of our several trips together.

 

How did you get started in the guitar business?

 

I started in the guitar business when a young man came to my office and wanted to rent a vacant warehouse building that I owned.  I was so impressed with the guitar with an aluminum neck that I invested, eventually becoming the largest stockholder and Chairman of the Board. In 1987 Kramer was voted on by Guitar Player as the top guitar in the country.

 

You were a witness to Johnny Cash received the Shalom Peace Award.  Do you know any details on the work Cash did to get such a prestigious award?

 

In 1986 Johnny was Roasted at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis where he received the Shalom Peace Award from the Jewish National Fund for his work in promoting peace around the world. Johnny made a movie called Gospel Road in Israel.

 

Can you tell me how Johnny helped revive your religion?

 

I was a usher in Bob’s wedding party in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  After [the] wedding, Johnny, John Carter and I flew back to New Jersey in a learjet. While on [the] plane it was thunder[ing] and lightning; [and the] plane was shaking when John turned to me and asked what church I went too.  I told him that I didn't go to church, [and] he asked why. I told him [and] he said there is a God up there you should go back to church.  [To] make the story short, I did go back to church and the last five times that Johnny Cash ever came to Asbury Park he went to church with me.

 

Johnny Cash was deeply involved with Asbury Park, lived there for a time, and recorded a concert there--can you tell us about his involvement in Asbury and “The Great Lost Performance”?

 

Johnny and June were limited partners in the Berkeley Carteret Hotel restoration and maintained an apartment there from 1985 until 1993.  Johnny did several concerts at the Paramount Theater just across the street from the hotel.  Johnny did a ceremony for the local VFW and the MIA's. The lost performance I paid to have recorded along with a man named Clark Ensley.  On his own, several years later, Clark put out the CD and added his wife's vocals even though she never performed with John.

 

Cash was your business partner at some point.  How did that professional partnership begin?

 

The business partnership began while on the movie set [for] "Murder in Coweta County,” filmed in Georgia.  While on Johnny’s bus I showed June pictures of Asbury Park and the vacant hotel that I was buying. She fell in love with it and told Johnny [about the hotel] when he got on the bus.  We talked and he wanted to be part of it.  That's how it all started.

 

Is there any advice or words of wisdom that you remember Johnny giving you, or any comments he made that really stick with you to this day?

 

Words of wisdom. In 1993, I went bankrupt [and] Johnny invited me to spend Christmas and New Years with he and his family in Jamaica. We had a long talk one day and he said, “Henry, remember this: The only thing that went bankrupt was your wallet." He pointed to my head and my heart [and said,] “[A]s long as that brain is working and that heart keeps pumping you will be fine and will come back bigger and stronger than before.”

 

If you had to pick one song, and one album of Johnny Cash’s, what would be your favorite picks?

 

Favorite song: "Ways of a Woman in Love.”  Favorite album: Live at Folsom Prison.  Other top songs: “Flesh and Blood,” “Forty Shades of Green,” “Far Side Banks of Jordan,” and “Meet Me in Heaven.”  

 

What encouraged you to write your book, “Johnny Cash is a Friend of Mine,” now, several years after Cash’s passing?

 

I always wanted to write a book about my memories of him.  But I am not a writer.  So I hired an author, but he wanted [$50,000] to write the book [and] at that time, three years ago, my business was very slow and I didn't have the money.  So my son purchased a camera and said, “Dad, talk into this and tell your stories.”  I did, and for several weeks I sat and talked.  After finishing we found [an] online a service that would type [what is said] in a word document.  We hired them and soon all my stories were down on paper.  I never had a computer in my life, so at age 70, I [got] a computer and typed, one finger at a time, the entire book from that transcribed document. [O]nline we found an editor for two grand who we hired. The editor sent back [a] marked up manuscript which I revised [and] sent out to several artist agencies and book publishers [but] none would print it as I was not an experienced author and they felt it was a "niche book.”  My son found this company called Createspace, owned by Amazon, [and] we sent them the book including photos.  Next thing I know I am an author.

 

For more information on Mr. Vaccaro’s book "Johnny Cash Is a Friend of Mine" (which contains more stories and personal photos of Johnny Cash) please visit his Facebook page, Johnny Cash Is a Friend of Mine.

 

 

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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.

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On April 14, 2012, I had the privilege to interview Mr. Johnny Western, a country singer and songwriter and a living western legend.  Mr. Western generously gave me a part of his day talk about his experiences with Johnny Cash and his own career, specifically for the Johnny Cash Infocenter website.  I want to thank him again on behalf of the Johnny Cash community for his contribution of some of the best Cash stories I have heard, and I have heard a lot.  Thank you again, Johnny Western! 

 

Interview by: Jeff Emond

 

What is the first memory you have of hearing Johnny Cash?

 

Riding down the freeway in L.A., listening to KXLA radio in 1955. When I heard Folsom Prison Blues I almost wrecked my car on the freeway, I just couldn’t believe that sound. I started weaving all over the freeway with the beat of that thing and it absolutely just took over my mind. I had an image of what this guy who I had never heard of must look like. I thought he must be over six feet tall with jet black hair and it turned out when I saw my first picture of him he looked exactly like how I thought he would look. 

 

What was your first impression when you met Johnny Cash?
 

I met him very briefly in 1956 in Toronto, Canada when I was working for Gene Autry doing the Canadian National Exhibition. Johnny was playing for a week at the Casino Theater in downtown Toronto. I went down after the Autry show every night and caught his show. He had the flu the whole time we were there and so we met very briefly. He was a really, really nice guy and I felt so sorry that he was having to perform under those conditions. In fact, they even had a cot backstage at the theater so he could lie down between shows. A few years later in 1958 when he moved out to California we reconnected and that is when I went to work with him.

 

How did you end up becoming part of the Johnny Cash Show?

 

I was recording for Columbia records with the same producer as Johnny was, Don Law. I had originally signed for Columbia records with Mitch Miller in New York when I did the Paladin theme for Have Gun Will Travel, but after one record they switched me over to the Nashville country and western division. Don Law produced Marty Robbins, Ray Price, Billy Walker--all the Columbia acts including Johnny Cash. So, we were both on the same label, both living in California. He called me one day and asked if I would like to work three dates with him. I thought, “That sounds like a lot of fun, work three dates with Johnny Cash? That sounds pretty good.” We worked them and they were all sold out. About a week later he called me and said “We got sixteen dates out in the Midwest, want to go?” I said, “You bet.” And that started it. By the time we finished up the last show it turned out to be 39 years and 11 months that I toured with him.

 

I understand you provided vocals on some big songs for John Cash that was later overdubbed in Cash’s voice. What were some of the songs?

 

There were two major songs. His Irish song, Forty Shades of Green, and a civil war song, The Big Battle. I did those on the same session. Johnny was running a temperature of 103 that night and all these musicians had been called; it was a huge record session with seven singers, a big orchestra, Don Law had flown from Nashville to be there. Johnny was so sick he needed to go to a hospital. He couldn’t even talk, much less sing. All these musicians were being paid and Don Law said, “Your voice is the same range as his, you go ahead do the vocals.” I had been hired on the session as a guitar player. Don said, “Put the guitar down and you do the vocals. We’ll bring Johnny in when he’s well to overdub those songs,” and that’s exactly the way it happened. 

 

What was it like to work with the Carter Family and the Tennessee Three in the studio?

 

It was like family. In fact, it was a family. I worked with Tennessee Two way before there was a Tennessee Three. I came on the Cash Show in November of 1958, and W.S. “Fluke” Holland, the drummer, didn’t come on until the end of 1960. We worked without a drummer for a long time on the road. We did have drummers on record sessions, but they were Nashville drummers or Los Angeles drummers. Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant were two of the greatest guys in the world, and a lot of times it was just the five of us: My roommate on the Johnny Cash Show was a fiddle player, Gordon Terry, one of the greatest fiddlers in the world. We roomed together for about seven years on the Cash Show, about 200 days a year. Luther Perkins, Marshall Grant--no drummer--Johnny Cash, Gordon Terry and myself.

It was originally supposed to be a pilot for a TV show, they hoped it would sell and go into syndication. The idea was to use a song each week for the TV show. We used a cowboy theme because they used the song, “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” Then they wanted to do another show with David Dudley singing his truck driver songs like “Six Days on the Road” and get Tennessee Ernie Ford to do “Sixteen Tons” and the coal mining songs. However, it didn’t sell as a TV pilot so they shot more footage and added a few more minutes to it and made it a selective short subject movie. Around that time movies, like Spartacus, were coming out and were three hours long so theaters were looking for a shorter movie for a double bill, especially for the drive-ins. So, they sold it to Crown International Pictures and released it in theaters. It never did play on TV but it played a lot of theaters at that time.

 

You also played guitar on some Johnny Cash songs; do any of the songs really stick out to you now?

 

All of them. The first one I did, on August 14th, 1969, was the theme song for “The Rebel - Johnny Yuma.” I did five songs with Johnny at that time, including my favorite, where I played his big red Gibson guitar that had his name on the neck of it, and then we did “The Little Drummer Boy” on the same session with Christmas stuff. I did 71 singles and 5 albums with him through the years, from 1959 to 1965, and songs like “Tennessee Flat Top Box” was a huge record for him, and I played on that one. And “Bonanza” was a big record, and I played on that one. Through the years there was some wonderful Gospel things we recorded that he loved doing. The 71 singles and 5 albums were all for Columbia records.

Cash was known to do a lot of prison concerts and concerts on Indian reservations. Have you ever attended these concerts with Cash and if is there any special that you can recall from one of these concerts?

The first one was January 1st, 1960, at San Quentin penitentiary in California. Merle Haggard was sitting in the front row, he was a prisoner there. He was a trustee in the prison band. I got to talk to him backstage and he said he wanted to be a country singer when he got out and he thought he was going to be out for parole later that year, and he was. The next time I saw him was in Bakersfield singing at a nightclub after he got out of prison and we talked about that at that time and we have ever since. And that was a memorable thing, not only because it was the first of many penitentiaries--over 20--I have played through the years, most of them with Johnny, but then the fact that Merle Haggard was there was an added plus as far as memories are concerned. It was a very unusual thing considering what he did with his career after he was out of the penitentiary.

 

Is there any song or album of Cash’s that stands out as your favorite?

 

I think “Forty Shades of Green” is a masterpiece--of course I think many pieces he wrote were masterpieces. I didn’t play on “Ragged Old Flag”, but I think that is a masterpiece that he wrote. The most beautiful lyrics and music he ever wrote was in 1960, when Cash and his first wife, Vivian, were on a trip to Ireland. That was around the time I went in and recorded for him and did the overdub. I think out of all the songs I ever recorded with him that is my absolute favorite.

I understand you worked with Cash from 1958 to 1997. Was there a big change in the feel of the shows from the Columbia years to the American records years or did the shows you played always have the same feel?

Oh yeah. He just kept getting bigger and bigger. He was big in 1858 because by that time he had Sun records and songs like “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and “Ballad of a Teenage Queen.” But when he signed with Columbia records it got bigger because Columbia had bigger promotion worldwide. And I started recording with him in ‘59, but he had those records out in ‘58. So when I came on board at the end of ‘58, before I started recording with him in ‘59, he was really, really big. By that time he had “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” out. But it just kept growing and growing, and his popularity became more, and we watched the size of the auditoriums grow from places that seat 3-4-5,000 to 10,000, sometimes 15,000. And the farther we got into the music business, the larger the auditoriums and audiences got, especially state fairs where we might see 20,000 people in one night.

 

Johnny Cash has endured in a competitive music industry for over 50 years. Besides having a unique voice and musical talent why do you think his fan base continues to grow?

 

He was different from anyone else. He had a feel for the common man, who could better identify with his songs. At the time I was working with him all the time, you’d see as many Johnny Cash records in beautiful homes in New York City and Beverly Hills as you would in a shotgun shack in Arkansas or Texas. He just appealed to everybody, he dropped all the barriers. Even though he recorded basically all country and folk flavored stuff, it just crossed all the barriers. Rock n’ rollers loved him, rock n’ rollers love him to this day. Look at the statements Of course, he did record with U2. People in the rock n’ roll field just idolize him to this day. A lot of the rock n’ rollers big records say that their influence was from Johnny Cash. He had something that crossed all of these barriers. He was different from everybody else, including great singers like Marty Robbins and Ray Price who had a definite audience going--basically a country or cowboy audience. And then Cash broke down all those barriers by doing nothing more than what Cash did. It was just something that people identified with and so his scope was much broader than anybody else’s that I ever knew.

 

In February you attended the annual Johnny Cash Cruise with W.S. Holland, Jack Clement, and Joanne Cash, among others. What was your favorite part of the cruise and do you plan on attending the event next year?

 

We had people from all over the world there: from Australia, Austria, Germany, Asia, virtually every state in the U.S. and Canada. It was just incredible what his draw is throughout the world to this day. In fact, Bear Family Records in Germany, which is the largest record company in the world, sells more Johnny Cash records than anyone in their catalog and always have worldwide.

 

What was your favorite part of the cruise and do you plan on attending next year?

 

I don’t know if Bill Miller is going to invite me back next year, but it was wonderful to be part of this one. The highlight was the concert we did for the fans. Jack Clement was there, who wrote “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “I Don’t Like It But I Guess Things Happen That Way,” and “Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog.” Jack did those songs, and Joanne Cash did gospels songs, and I did a medley of the Johnny Cash songs I recorded with Cash through the years. W.S. Holland played the drums and there was a wonderful group called The Branson on the Road Band, and their girl guitar player Debbie played every note that Luther Perkins ever played. I felt like I was back on the stage with the original Tennessee Three, especially with W.S. Holland playing drums. It stood the hair up on the back of my neck. I was reliving so many great memories. We used to work 16 to 18 days in a row, and every night was Saturday night--there just weren’t any empty seats out there. The response of those crowds were wonder, and I got to emcee those shows so I was the first one onstage and the last one off, and I loved emceeing those shows as well as playing on them.

Forty years of my life is tied up with that guy and I loved him from the minute I met him and I adored him on the day that he died. It broke my heart the day I went to his funeral and I could not believe he was laying there in that jet black coffin in that jet black suit because there was a time you couldn’t kill Johnny Cash with an axe. What he had was autonomic neuropathy which is a variation of diabetes. He was a voracious reader and he read so many wonderful things. He took me into his library in Tennessee and showed me six dozen books of every category you could think of and he just loved these books. He was a very complex guy, probably the most complex guy I have known in my life. He had a heart bigger than Charlie Daniels’ cowboy hat, and Charlie Daniels wears the biggest cowboy hats in the world. It was an absolute heartbreaker when he died.

 

Can you talk about how you first got your start in the music industry?

 

When I was five years old I saw a Gene Autry movie and I just wanted to be him. I didn’t want to be anything else in the world. I would have never dreamed that sixteen years later Gene Autry would put me under contract and take me with him around the world until he retired. Gene Autry was the biggest thing in the world, bigger than Garth Brooks ever thought about being. Johnny Cash loved Gene Autry and Gene loved Johnny. When I was 13 I joined up with some musicians from Tulsa and we did a recording; it turned out there was room for one song left on the tape so I sang “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” The record company thought the guys from Tulsa were too twangy, but they liked me, so by the time I was 14 I was given my own radio show. I wanted to drop out of school but I couldn't because my father was in charge of the P.E. department at my school. When I graduated high school I was 17 and went to TV, then I moved to the west coast and signed up with Gene Autry when I was 20.

 

Can you talk about your early TV work which eventually led to a spot on the “Have Gun--Will Travel,” television show?

 

There were ten westerns on ABC, ten on NBC, ten on CBS. There were thirty shows per week after Gunsomke came on. I had a small part in a pilot for a movie called Pony Express, and it gave me an in. I ended up doing 22 pictures my first year, mostly for TV. Then through the years I did 5 feature pictures with people like Ben Johnson and Joel McCrea, which gave me a total of 37 pictures by the time I was done.  It was fun stuff.  I was getting paid for playing cowboy! I was getting to work with all the top people--I did two episodes of Gunsmoke with Jim Arness. That led to “Have Gun--Will Travel” because I was doing a TV series called “Boots and Saddles” and the interiors were shot in Hollywood at the same studio where Gunsmoke was. That’s where they did “Have Gun--Will Travel” starring Richard Boone, and the same casting director who hired me for Gunsmoke happened to be casting for Have Gun. I asked him if there was ever a part for a nasty would-be gunfighter that wants to duel Richard Boone I’d love to do that. I was into fast-draw at the time and thought it would be really fun. The casting director came back to me on the set of Boots and Saddles, and told me I didn’t even have to audition, I had a part.

We finished the episode of Have Gun--Will Travel at 9:00 at night on March 13, 1958. The next morning at 7:00 I had a baby daughter born in California. Walking around the kitchen of my house, I picked up my guitar and played Ghost Riders in the Sky just to calm my nerves until I could go back to the hospital and see my daughter again. And all of a sudden this idea I had in the back of my head, “Paladin, Paladin, where do you roam?” started forming and I wrote the whole song in 20 minutes. Then I tried to record it on my home tape-recorder, but it wouldn’t work. So I called a friend of mine who owed me some studio time in downtown Hollywood. I recorded for 15 minutes, just The Ballad of Paladin in an echo chamber, and I had two copies made. I took the copies to Richard Boone and Sam Rolfe, who created Have Gun, as musical thank-you cards. The next weekend, without my knowledge, they took the song over to CBS and played it for them. They called me the following week and had me go to CBS, and when I walked out of there that afternoon I had contract with Mitch Miller in New York with Columbia records, and a contract with CBS as the singer and writer for the theme song for Have Gun--Will Travel, which at the time was the second highest rated song in the world. I was 23 three years old!

 

Is there a story behind your last name and your strong association with western music?

 

No, I just lucked out. I always said, “If I was a symphony conductor, it would have worked against me.”

 

I understand during your early musical career, you worked with Gene Autry. How did that come about and what was it like?

 

I dreamed of the Gene Autry thing since I was a child. I knew him from my radio show, I had him as a guest on my Minnesota radio show when I was 15, and my television show when I was 16. He said if I ever come to Hollywood, he’d give me a helping hand.

I sang at a private party at a ranch in the San Ferando Valley one night, and Gene and his wife were there along with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and all the Sons of the Pioneers and their wives, and I was entertainment. As luck would have it, two weeks later Johnny Bond, who had been with Gene for 30 years and was his personal guitarist, decided to retire and get off the road. Gene had remembered what I did on the stage two weeks before and got ahold me. Then boom, I was with Gene. For two years, ‘56 and ‘57, I worked with Gene, who was the biggest thing in the world, and that gave me prestige for my first film.

 

I understand you’re an authority on the western genre. Could you recommend a western song, movie and book that every western fan should check out?

 

The best song would be “The Searches” from the John Wayne movie of the same name, which is itself the best western ever made. I was lucky enough to record that on my Have Gun—Will Travel album with the Sons of the Pioneers. The song was written by Stan Jones, who wrote “Ghost Riders in the Sky”.   I think Jack Shafer’s Shane might be my favorite western book of all time. Shane was also a wonderful movie with Alan Ladd, which might be my second favorite western movie.

 

What was it like working as a Kansas DJ for many years and being inducted into the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame?

 

It was a nice deal with the Hall of Fame. I had known the owners of Great Empire broadcasting in Wichita since 1958, and then the Cash Show played for KA radio in El Paso. Mike Oakland was the disc jockey there and we became great personal friends. When he left El Paso in 1964 and formed Great Empire Broadcast with Mike Lynch the two of them ended up having 15 radio stations in the Midwest. Mike Oakland kept telling me, “You’re going to get tired of the road, and when you do I want you to come work with us.” And he said I’d be free to do concerts on the weekends, to go with Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings whenever they called me to do a concert. So it was the best of two worlds. It was a chance to be home five days a week for the first time in 50 years of my life. As of January this year, I’ve been on the road over 4 million miles. 100,000 miles with Johnny Cash, 100,000 miles with Gene Autry, and then all the concerts with my own band.

There was a tremendous amount of stuff to use on the air. I loved it. I got to play all my old friend’s records; it was a country gold record. I did all the booking for the radio stations and I got to put all my friends on the tours. It was fun to work with them when they came into are area and to keep those guys working, the guys who made country music what it is. It was really the best of two worlds, and I loved it for 25 years.

 

I understand a rare live version of you singing a song from early in your career, “Ten Years,” is has been released by Bear Family records as part of the “Unseen Cash” album.

 

Jack Clement wrote “Ten Years” and I recorded the Columbia Records version of it the night that we recorded Johnny Yuma and the Little Drummer Boy. There was time for one more song; Johnny Cash’s band backed me up on that song. Richard ?, the president of Bear Family records, always liked that song. Richard interest in releasing that song for “Unseen Cash” is because all of Johnny Cash’s musicians are on that song and it was written by Clement, who had written so many hit songs for Cash. I loved that song, and it was my first commercial record. “Paladin” was my first record, but I consider that a western record and it was for TV.

 

Do you have any plans for a future album release?

 

I don’t think so; I think I’ve reached the end of the line. I’ll be 78 in October. I’m still doing a few concerts, big Western Film festivals and memorial concerts. But I don’t feel that I’m singing as well now. I don’t want a permanent record of me when I’m not at the top of my game. I’ve had a lot of friends who just can’t get off the stage, whose voices are all over the place. That’s not how I wanted to be remembered.

 

After the interview, I thanked Mr. Western for his time and he so kindly thanked me for taking interest—and added that Cash was worth the interest. It was an honor to interview one of my heroes about one of my heroes. I hope everyone enjoys reading this as much as I have enjoyed sharing it.

 

To see where Johnny Western is touring and to purchase an autographed CD, visit the Official Johnny Western website.  His most recent record appearance is on Unseen Cash.

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