Out Among the Stars: Q & A with John Carter Cash
On his website, John Carter Cash, the only child of Johnny and June Carter Cash, lists his occupation as “preserves the family legacy and is a caretaker to the heritage of his musical ancestors.”
I was honored to speak with John Carter Cash recently, leading up to the release of the “new” Johnny Cash album, “Out Among the Stars”, in stores Tuesday, March 25th.
DIRTY ROOTS: You’re certainly carrying the weight of some heavy names and we’re honored to have you represent them here on Dirty Roots.
JOHN CARTER CASH: Well, you know my parents were just good folk. They really were good people. That’s what endures – the nature of the heart – as far as I’m concerned.
Your dad is almost a mythical figure, almost like Babe Ruth, to so many people.
I’ve heard so many stories that he was such a presence that he could change the feel of a room when he walked in. But to you he was ‘Dad’.
He was Dad. And he was a good-hearted man. I mean, he really was my best friend for many years. Dad liked to laugh more than he liked to cry. Everybody knows him as the “Man in Black”, who was a dark and foreboding figure possibly. But there was a lot more to the man. There was so much more to see in his nature and his spirit. Those who knew him, those who were close to him, knew his sense of humor, his integrity, his caring and gentle nature.
We hear so much about your dad, and I don’t want to leave your mom out. She seemed like such a wonderful person.
Oh yeah. She was. Mom, she offered such a light in her spirit everywhere she went. She treated people the same. I mean, she didn’t change from one person to the next in the way she treated people. She had such a love in her very nature that endures and still is there in strength and beauty.
Your dad is an important figure for me personally and in my musical development. I got into the American Recordings when they came out. I was 16 or so at the time and around that time I also started working at a country music radio station that played a lot of the classic stuff. So, I got into the older stuff at the same time. What did it mean for his family, and for him, to have those American Recordings and that late-career resurgence?
In the last part of his life, although he often was struggling physically in some ways and was having some rough periods, he still endured. He still persisted. The strength of his integrity, the love that was within the man, remained. And that’s what I hear when I hear those recordings. That’s what stands out to me. That was what he carried with him. That is the beauty that is there. Even though the frailty is undeniably there, the strength is what endures. So, it’s very important to me, those recordings that he made in the last part of his life. That’s truly my favorite of his recordings.
We’re here to talk about the newly released album, “Out Among the Stars”. One of the early pieces of publicity I saw talked about how it may not be THE missing link, but it may be A missing link between his Columbia years and the American Recordings. Is that accurate?
Yes, this is a period of my dad’s life that not as many people know about, musically. Johnny Cash didn’t fit into any mold. At all. Maybe at that time period, maybe Nashville was trying to figure out how to make him fit in a mold. And, maybe, perhaps, Nashville was going in a different direction, away from the integrity. Luckily, Billy Sherrill went in and made a record with my father, a record of integrity. A record that is a treasure now for us. Something that’s true. Billy was open-minded enough to see the vision that Johnny Cash could only sound like Johnny Cash. That’s the record that he made.
Of course, Columbia at the time didn’t quite know what to do with it, because they were headed in a different direction. They, not long after these recordings were done in 1984, dropped my father from Columbia. Everybody at Sony Legacy, which is Columbia now, agrees that it was the worst decision they ever made.
Gratefully, the guys there have the sight, have the vision now. I worked with producer Steve Berkowitz, my co-producer on this, to finalize these recordings, because they were unfinished. We tried not to take away from Billy Sherrill’s original production. We tried to pay honor to it, not subtract a lot of the music at all. I mean, why would you want to? The musicians that are there are masters; Pete Drake, Kenny Malone. These guys, their music endures. The strength of what they did is still on these original recordings.
I listened to these recordings and I called Marty Stuart, who played on the original recordings, and I said, “Marty, your guitar playing now is better than it was in 1984. Why don’t you come in and rerecord your parts? Why don’t you come back in and re-do your mandolin that you played?” And so Marty did. He came into my studio, Cash Cabin Studio here in Hendersonville, and redid his guitar parts and his mandolin. It sounds wonderful. Hopefully the listener, when they listen, finds any new recordings seamless, that they fit perfectly with the old recordings. That’s my goal. That’s what we tried for, producer Steve Berkowitz and I, in the process.
Can you tell us the story of how you found this album?
Well, my mother and father were packrats. Truly, they hardly ever threw anything away. Through their lives together, things they would collect, their music, the things that they would gather along the way, they would put into a storage vault. So there were literally hundreds and hundreds of recordings that were put away into a storage vault in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. After they passed away it became my responsibility to go through these things, see what all was there, catalog it.
We took all the tapes, with the help of the guys at Sony Legacy; Steve Berkowitz, Gregg Geller, and some of the other folks there. We shipped it all to New York City. All of the recordings were transferred to digital and the original tapes were shipped back to me.
When we discovered this record, we saw it as a unique, beautiful body of work. Here lately, we sort of rediscovered it, the guys at Columbia did, and what a blessing to have it now.
So, is it safe to say there’s potential for more of these kinds of things to come out in the future?
Yes there is. It’s a great possibility there’ll be more Johnny Cash records to come. If it’s right. We try to maintain the integrity of the Johnny Cash Trust and release only things we believe he would’ve wanted released.
We’re very careful with the use of name and likeness also. My dad’s image we don’t allow for the use of alcohol and tobacco products. Because that’s what he did. We try to stay true to his decisions in life. Not that he didn’t ever smoke or drink, but he just wouldn’t go there. So that’s the way we try to maintain things. Integrity. You know, we don’t want to release it just to release it.
Before we wrap up, I know you have many other projects you work on. Do you want to put a plug in for any of that in particular?
I produce music. I’m working with Loretta Lynn. I’ve got some new music for her coming out later this year, hopefully. Just a lot of stuff I’m excited about. I do have a novel out right now, it’s called Lupus Rex. You can find out about more music that I’ve been involved in, my own and other artists, and production, on my website or on my Facebook page.
At the Dirty Roots Show, we have two key figures. One of them is Joe Strummer; we call him Our Patron Saint.
There you go, brother! I love Joe.
And the other one is Johnny Cash. And we call him Our Founder, because he put me on a musical path that helped get me where I am now.
I like to hear that, that sounds great.
Ryan Mifflin is the host of Dirty Roots Radio, a “Quentin Tarantino-ization of a spaghetti western style old-school record show” featuring renegade country, vintage gospel, raw blues, greasy soul, punk, and funk.
Tune in to Dirty Roots Radio every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) at www.wgrn.net.
Mifflin blogs about music, life, and the weekly Dirty Roots Radio playlist at: www.DirtyRootsRadio.com.