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Johnny Western Interview 2012
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.