John Carter Cash opens up about the enduring legend of his parents, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, from the family’s cabin and recording studio outside Nashville on the eve of the release of the new lost album, “Out Among the Stars”.
You spent so much time performing onstage with your parents [Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash], which memory of your childhood stands out most to you?
Easily, the time we spent outdoors. We went on fishing trips and traveling together, to museums. We laughed a lot together. I floated on a river in Alaska with them for five days when I was a kid. That’s what stands out. It was wonderful having the chance to get up onstage with them, and I don’t take any second of any of it for granted. Today, February 22nd, is my dad’s birthday, so I really feel close to him today.
You were largely responsible for introducing your dad to the alt-rock scene in the ‘90s. What did it mean for you to introduce a new generation to your dad?
My dad didn’t need a whole lot of help, not from Rick Rubin, nor myself, nor anybody else. He was hip. He was tough. There was a lot to my dad. Yes, the darkness was there. And that’s appealing to a lot of people. So when the first American recordings came out, it had songs about murder, and the number 13, and unluckiness. Suddenly, Johnny Cash was cool again. I worked with my dad on the American albums 3-6. There was so much about my dad. He was so many things. You couldn’t point a finger and say “Okay, Johnny Cash was cool. He was dark.” Upon further investigation you find out, maybe he’s a little goofy too. That he was a man of love and integrity. So what endures? What remains? What spirit do we have that we carry on with? I know that the love he had for my mother carries on in many ways – by his children, by the people who love their music or watch the movie Walk the Line. There’s beauty and struggle in the love affair between my mother and father, a lot of pain. There were a lot of times they almost faltered. But they stayed together and because of that endurance, their love was greater at the end of their life than it ever had been.
You just gave an incredible characterization of your dad. How would you describe your mom?
My mom was very, very tenderhearted in the way that she could forgive immediately and never hold a record of wrong. She forgave my father over and over again. She wasn’t perfect. She made her own mistakes in life but the truth is that she loved those around her closer and with more tenderness than anyone I’ve ever experienced. She was attached with love to the people in her life. She was tough. She was strong. She was persistent. “Press on,” was her catch phrase. My mother was the one more than anybody else who believed that no matter what life hands you—if you don’t feel like getting up onstage—it’s time to press on. That’s the way she lived. At the end of her life, she had a record that came out called “Press On” that went ahead and won a GRAMMY. My dad played acoustic guitar backing her on that record. And then the next album, her last album, “Wildwood Flower” also won a GRAMMY. And it’s that sense of persistence that made those accomplishments possible. Because, like my father, she was very sick at the end of her life. I saw them both live what they preached.
In that vein of pressing on, the array of artists you’ve produced for and collaborated with over time reads like a Country Music Hall of Fame, from Loretta to George Jones. Which artist that you’ve collaborated with outside your family means the most to you and why?
Since my parents passed away, working in the studio, the person who means the most to me, not to put anybody else down or leave them out, is Loretta Lynn. I’ve worked with her since 2007. We’ve done five records. She is so close at heart to me. She’s so much like my mom. She’s focused. She’s bright. She’s got a silly side. When I’m working in the studio with her I feel like I’m with my mom again. Working with Miss Loretta has been the biggest boon in spirit I’ve had since my parents passed away.
You must’ve had so many meaningful moments in this studio. Which moment do you find yourself returning to most?
I will never, ever forget working with my dad in the studio when he recorded “We’ll Meet Again,” which is a song off American IV. That was recorded at Jack Clemon’s studio in Nashville, actually. Dad, by that point, was having a lot of trouble getting around. His eyesight was failing. But I remember that on that day, he laughed a lot. That song is full of joy. The thing about my dad was: he had vision. If he knew a song would work for him he would take it on, like he did with “Hurt,” for instance. He was very open-minded about his recordings, about what would work and what wouldn’t work. We’d say, “Are you sure you want to do that one, Dad?” And he’d say, “Oh yeah. It means something to me.”
Were your parents entertainers? Did they have friends up here, to the cabin a lot?
Oh yeah. Specifically, I remember Tommy Petty and The Heartbreakers running through the compound chasing a llama and chasing the ostrich, back in about 1982. It wasn’t long after that that my dad was actually attacked by one of the ostriches. The ostrich jumped up and kicked him and broke three of his ribs, sent him to the hospital. Put him in traction for awhile. He got rid of the ostrich. We had some might big drumsticks!
“Out Among the Stars,” the new lost album you’re releasing with Sony this spring – what was it like it to discover those songs, and how did you ultimately decide to put them out in the world?
My dad recorded so much music over the course of his lifetime, some of it already well-known, some of it still yet to be released. The basic question I ask myself when I’m listening to his lost work is: Would he be proud of this now? If the answer is yes, I start to listen for other things, like where the songs belong within his archive. With “Out Among the Stars” it was chilling to me, how great his voice sounded. He had just come out of rehab after a long dark, period when he recorded that album and he was really at the top of his game. I still get goosebumps even now, just thinking about that period in his life, and what this album must’ve meant to him. It’s funny to say that, and to feel that at this moment, since I’m wearing one of his shirts today.
Do you think of that shirt as lucky?
Oh yeah. My dad wore this shirt off and on, onstage. It’s made by a clothier in Beverly Hills. He had a number of these shirts. Purple ones and white ones, gold ones and orange ones, silver ones, but of course, more than any other color, he had black. This shirt reminds me of him. It brings me closer in spirit to him. I’m comfortable in it.
Do you believe in luck? Did your parents?
Yes. Call it destiny or foresight or purpose, but I’ve felt lucky and unlucky. I guess you could blame it on luck when you go out to fish one day and you don’t catch anything and the next day you go out and catch 50. My parents – they truly believed in persistence. Persistence was number one in life to them, that, wherever the cards may fall that they press on, that they have endurance, that they face any kind of challenge, whether it be struggle or some sickness that afflicts them, that in the face of adversary they do not stop and continue on. They probably would’ve said that they created their own luck sometimes.Read the next article Shop the Johnny Cash Special Collaboration Enter the Sweepstakes