Johnny Cash – The man in black and white, and every shade in between
Take I-23 north from Kingsport, Tennessee, or south from Wise, Virginia, and you’ll find more or less the same mix of old and new Appalachia: roadside flea markets within sight of Wal-Mart Supercenters, generations-old strip mining operations alongside latter-day pulp mills, doublewides in hollers overlooked by McMansions on the hill.
That’s not the case once you get off the interstate and the road narrows to two lanes, as it does when you cross the Tennessee-Virginia line and wind northeast on Highway 58 toward the Carter Family homestead in Scott County. It isn’t that the landscape suggests a bygone era; the shady blacktop that snakes its way through this corner of southwest Virginia reveals more than its share of late-model pickups, trailers and prefab homes. It’s just that, bereft of billboards and fast-food chains, its rugged recesses have yet to be inundated by the more garish trappings of modernity.
This is even more the case further up the road in blink-or-miss-it Hiltons (pop. 30), where a filling station/cafe with a rabies advisory in its window marks the turnoff to the Carter Family Fold, which lies just three miles down A.P. Carter Highway in Maces Spring.
“Fold” is the name that Joe Carter, A.P. and Sara’s son, gave the barn-like amphitheater he built into the rise just to the left of his father’s old grocery store (now a museum) in 1976. Invested with biblical freight, the term could hardly sound more antediluvian, conjuring either an enclosure for sheep or a congregation, or a “flock” bound together by shared values or beliefs. Or, for that matter, a cloud of witnesses like the one that gathers, at the behest of Joe Carter’s sister Janette, in the Fold’s hodgepodge of chairs, benches and transplanted school bus seats every Saturday night to listen and dance to the old-time music that’s synonymous with the Carters and the mountains of Southern Appalachia.
“Fold” has a broader connotation here, though. It’s also an old English term for a small basin or drainage very much like Poor Valley, the narrow holler bisected by A.P. Carter Highway that encompasses everything from the log cabin where A.P. was born to Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church, the white clapboard chapel behind which he and Sara are buried. The brooding slabs of pink granite under which they lay are adorned with copper plaques, shaped like 78-rpm records, inscribed with the refrain “Keep On The Sunny Side”.
Mother Maybelle Carter and her husband, A.P.’s brother Ezra (“Eck”), are buried just outside Nashville, but the modest white cottage with the wraparound porch they built in the early 1940s is here at the Fold as well. The house, which is lined with box elders and Canadian hemlocks and sits a couple hundred yards off the road facing south, now belongs to the couple’s only surviving daughter, June Carter, and her husband, Johnny Cash.
The Cashes are there the sunny Friday morning in September I make the trip out to the Fold. The man of the house — dressed only half in black, a white work shirt being his concession to the light — is sitting in the living room where Mother Maybelle and her daughters Helen, Anita and June used to rehearse. Photos of kin, many of them taken by Johnny, including a cherubic shot of a young Rosanne, compete with space among knick-knacks and Carter-Cash memorabilia on every wall and countertop.
His feet elevated to prevent them from swelling due to water retention brought on by diabetes, Cash has been at the Fold working on June’s follow-up to 1999’s exquisitely unvarnished Press On. The album is scheduled for release on Dualtone early next year. Cash’s own The Man Comes Around, the fourth installment in his series of recordings with producer Rick Rubin, comes out November 5 on Lost Highway.
It’s been a week since the Man in Black made a surprise appearance at the Americana Music Association Awards in Nashville to receive the first-ever Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award for his lifelong commitment to voicing the struggles of those who languish on society’s margins. More surprising still, especially given his retirement from public performance, was Cash’s return to the stage at the AMAs to sing with his wife and several generations of Carter women. His cameo prompted June, always in fine comedic form, to dub him a “Carter brother.”
“June asked me to sing a song or two on her album and I said, ‘OK, I’ll be first brother.’ Or maybe she called me Carter Brother first; anyway, I got a real kick out of singing along with her,” says Cash. He looks more frail than imposing, propped up in his black leather recliner. Yet at 70, and beset by asthma, diabetes and glaucoma, it’s remarkable just how vital, even unassailable, Cash and his craggy baritone remain.++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
This is an excerpt of the full article which appeared in The Best of No Depression: Writing About American Music, which features 25 of the finest articles from the magazines back issues, and was published in 2005 by University of Texas Press to help celebrate the magazines 10th anniversary. Due to our agreement with UT Press we are unable to include this article in our online archive.
The Best of No Depression is the only place you can find these articles other than our back issues. Visit the No Depression store to buy your copy for only $10.
The 300-page volume includes co-editor Grant Aldens award-winning 2001 feature on Billy Joe Shaver, co-editor Peter Blackstocks 1998 Artist of the Decade piece on Alejandro Escovedo, senior editor Bill Friskics-Warrens 2002 cover story on Johnny Cash, contributing editor Paul Cantins deep exploration of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco; and many other high points from our print heyday.
Table of contents for The Best of No Depression:
Preface, by Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock
Los Lobos, by Geoffrey Himes
Alejandro Escovedo, by Peter Blackstock
Jon Dee Graham, by Peter Blackstock
Billy Joe Shaver, by Grant Alden
Ray Wylie Hubbard, by John T. Davis
Flatlanders, by Don McLeese
Ray Price, by David Cantwell
Johnny Gimble, by Bill C. Malone
Johnny Cash, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Rosanne Cash, by Lloyd Sachs
Lucinda Williams, by Silas House
Buddy & Julie Miller, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Kasey Chambers, by Geoffrey Himes
Loretta Lynn, by Barry Mazor
Patty Loveless, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Kieran Kane, by Peter Cooper
Paul Burch, by Jim Ridley
Hazel Dickens, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Gillian Welch, by Grant Alden
Ryan Adams, by David Menconi
Jay Farrar, by Peter Blackstock
Jayhawks, by Erik Flannigan
Wilco, by Paul Cantin
Drive-By Truckers, by Grant Alden
Iron & Wine, by William Bowers