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Walking the line with Johnny Cash

Navan native Johnny Jameson spent a year working as Johnny Cash’s tour manager in the US

Johnny Jameson

Mon, Oct 7, 2013, 00:00


Robert Mulhern

He remembers walking down the corridor and thinking about what he was going to say. I mean how do you introduce yourself to Johnny Cash?

He thought about growing up in Co Meath; how he used to listen to Cash’s music on Long Wave, and here he was only a short walk from the dressing room door of the Man in Black.

It was 1982; it was San Antonio, Texas.

“Not too far from the Alamo, where one of my heroes Davy Crockett got clipped,” laughs Johnny Jameson behind the brim of in a black stetson.

So he slowed step and made an acknowledgement to himself, how only months before he was touring with the Miami Show Band back in Ireland, breathing new life into old ballrooms off quiet secondary roads, beyond busy national routes.

Then tragedy struck things got quiet and the Miami said they were pulling out of town… but for Mexico? Johnny didn’t like the sound of Mexico much but he had always liked the idea of America.

He could talk and he understood how to put together a good roadshow. He loved music too and felt at home touring. Still, he’d need a lucky break once he got there.

“But even getting to know Barry Singer was a thing of chance,” he says.

Jameson is in New Jersey now, reading the classifieds in the local paper… “And there it was, I mean I must have been there seven or eight weeks looking and this advert just appears looking for an experienced Roadie… I thought this is it.”

He picked up the phone, dialled the number for Singer Entertainment, and a few hours later he was in the promotor’s home talking about Miami, in Ireland.

“Here I was in Singer’s place and he offers me a job working a George Jones concert in Elizabeth, New Jersey at the Ritz Theatre. He said: ‘If I like what I see, we’ll talk further’. Straight away I told him that’s no problem.”

Jameson met Jones, kept up, and Singer decided the Irishman was worth keeping around.

“Three months later, I was back up out his house and he made me another offer. I said: ‘Johnny Cash, are you winding me up?’ He asked me, could I keep this show on the road for nine months? Two days later, I flew down to Texas and hooked up with the Johnny Cash show. I mean Johnny Cash, I was awestruck. I was dumbstruck. He was my hero when I was growing up in Ireland. He represented the outlaws and I was a bit of an outlaw. I couldn’t believe my luck.”

Back on the corridor in San Antonio, his legs were getting heavy. “I was thinking: ‘He couldn’t really be on the other side of this door could he? I mean there was no security, no bullshit like that.

“So I wrapped on the door, it opened and there he was, Johnny Cash. I said: “I’m your new tour manager!”

“He said, ‘Are you from Ireland?’ and I said: ‘Do we have a problem with that?’

“‘There’s no problem’ says Cash, ‘I love the Irish.’”

Sorting things

He remembers the first time something needed sorting. On the flight to Texas, he imagined being on the road with Johnny Cash would involve all sorts of tricky stuff, but he never figured on something simple like where the artist would eat and with who.

So he made for the dressing room, on a steadier legs this time, and asked Cash where he’d like to dine. “Do you want your meal here in the dressing room Mr Cash?”

“He put his hand on my shoulder and said: ‘I eat with my men’. And he went out to the auditorium where the food was served, with the truck drivers and the riggers and the lighting technicians and was in the middle of them all. I often think about that with Johnny how there was just no ego. Even if small things went wrong with the show he wasn’t picky about them. It didn’t matter if the food wasn’t what it said on the contract, he wouldn’t throw a tantrum for little or nothing. He wasn’t one of these guys that wanted M&Ms all the same colour.

“There were only a couple of things that bothered him, like he wouldn’t take the stage unless the American flag was flying and he wouldn’t tolerate a show unless the crew running it were unionised. They were his two big beefs.”

Once those things were taken care of, however, Jameson remembers the star turning in performance after performance through a period of his career where he was playing the smaller theatres in front of two to three thousand people.

“Six nights a week the hair would stand up when he took to the stage,” he says. “It’s funny, no matter how often I heard it he never allowed anyone introduce him on stage. It was always pitch black, then the spotlight would come on and he’d say: ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.’”

For Jameson those moments were brushstrokes of beauty that coloured life on the road bright.

Touring shows for the Man in Black was hard but enjoyable work. It was tough bringing up your family on the phone, Fed-Ex-ing a cheque to your wife every week, ringing up, hoping everything is ok.

“Then hearing some numb-nuts has run over your dog.”

There was an economic recession in America and Jameson would have to find out before he booked venues whether they were welfare towns or not. “Because if they were, there was no money to buy tickets the last two weeks of the month, so we had to go in the first two weeks.”

They figured these things out moving from place to place “across the Wild West in sleeper coaches”.

Jameson is only a few months in the job and the Johnny Cash Show is snaking its way from Houston Texas to Atlanta Georgia. It’s 3am, they’re making good time so they roll into the next truck stop.

He remembers it being quiet, despite all the Rigs fixed to the Diner like pins to a magnet.

They jump down off the trucks, wander in and order a fresh pot of coffee.

Jameson is looking at the specials on the board when he spots Conway Twitty and his crew sitting in one of the booths down the far end of the counter. He nods in the direction of Twitty’s table and they all wander down.

“The next thing, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry from Aerosmith come through the door and we all jumped into the one booth.

“We must have been there for four hours,” says Jameson. “Talking music, telling jokes. I remember the respect for Irish music. We were talking about the Chieftains and the Dubliners, the hours just passed and next thing the sun was up, all on pots of coffee.”

Jameson maintains he didn’t see Cash taking drugs any night.

“I didn’t know him when he was at that stage of his life, even the first day I met him he was with his wife June Carter Cash in the dressing room and his son. I worked with lots of other artists, guys like Willie Nelson and Little Richard, the Beach Boys, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes and of course things went on that shouldn’t have gone on, but the majority of the time you are on the road, life is tough for the crew and the bands. There were no orgies.”

Moving on

The years passed and things started getting harder, not easier. Life on the road was a long game and Jameson was tired of coming up short on sleep and time with his family. There were special days they all felt like one big one, like the afternoon the Navan man brought his clan down to Henderson, Tennessee to meet the extended Cash family, but by and large the relationship was professional.

“That was how I got through it. I kept it that way. I done what I had to. I always made sure my work was done before I went to an after-show party. I mean you couldn’t be going up to Johnny Cash every five minutes like he was your brother or anything. We all had jobs to do. You didn’t lick up to people or bullshit them and they respected you for that. But by the end I was getting burnt out. There were shows no longer selling out because of money problems and it was no longer fun to be on the road. Lots of the artists like Cash, George Jones and Willie Nelson were finding it hard to get airplay on radio because there was a big swing towards artists like Riba McIntyre. It had lost it’s fun”.

So Jameson made his exit for England, cherishing the memory of those tours and the nine months in San Antonio in 1982.

“I guess the first time I really thought about it again was the day Johnny Cash died. I was driving somewhere to get coffee and it came on the radio.

“I started thinking back to that first tour, remembering rehearsing what I was going to say and practising how to act normal. I couldn’t believe that I would knock at the door, that it would open and he would be the far side of it because there was no security. He wasn’t one of those artists who insisted on having a bodyguard everywhere. He walked around backstage like he was the janitor. That was him, a great artist, but just a normal working class guy. That’s what impressed me most about him, he was just a decent human being.”

Johnny Jameson lives in London and is the anchor for the Ireland’s Eye radio show on Resident 104.4 FM and a DJ working his own Angels and Outlaws roadshow. Robert Mulhern is a print and broadcast journalist working in London. He has had several articles published on the Generation Emigration blog about the London GAA team, the newly arrived Irish in the city, and more