John Carter Cash on his parents: ‘Their relationship was a shambles. But they learned to love each other again’

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash’s son has revisited their relationship to help chronicle his father’s life in lyrics

“I take it on as a producer, I take it on as a scholar and I take it on as a son. And I try to appreciate all of those things and balance it.”

John Carter Cash is talking about how he deals with curating the legacy of his father, Johnny Cash, and his mother, June Carter Cash, herself a significant figure and a member of one of the first families of American country music. She died in May 2003, aged 73, after complications following heart surgery. Her grieving and ailing husband of 35 years died four months later. He was 71. They were held together by a passionate love, but there were fierce highs and lows in the marriage, complicated by Johnny Cash’s periodic bouts of substance abuse.

The dramatic story of their relationship is part of the sweeping narrative that contextualises the 150 songs chosen, out of 600 or so, for Johnny Cash: The Life in Lyrics, an impressive new book put together by John Carter Cash with the biographer Mark Stielper.

“Mark and I came up with a list of songs that we thought would be right for the book. They were songs that Dad penned and that he was the sole writer of. There were some that I would have liked to see in there, when Dad was a cowriter, but that was the criteria. I’m a fan. I’ve probably got a master’s degree in Johnny Cash – I’ve studied him my whole life – but there’s some of my father’s writings that I’ve never read before that are in the book.

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“By reading the words and listening to the recordings I’m reminded as to who the man was ... I don’t know a day in my life when I’m not in contact with Johnny Cash in some form or other. But within the past year and a half to two years I have become reacquainted with the man who was my father in ways that I had never done before – and then also, of course, reacquainted with his great abilities.”

The book chronicles the journey of the boy from a family of poor, deeply religious cotton pickers in rural Depression-era Arkansas to becoming one of the great figures of American popular culture. Along the way he suffers the life-long heartbreak of losing his older brother and mentor, Jack, in a work accident. Then, after serving four years in the US air force, he gets his first hits, singing rockabilly with Sun Records in Memphis in the mid 1950s – he can be heard as part of the Million Dollar Quartet with Elvis Presley.

By this stage he is married to a young Texan, Vivian Liberto, with whom he has four daughters, including the noted singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash. But his life has become a roller coaster of highs and lows, fuelled by drugs and constant touring. There are hits – Folsom Prison Blues, I Walk the Line, Get Rhythm, Hey Porter, I Still Miss Someone – but they come at a price. His marriage breaks up, and the hits dry up somewhat, but he continues to make music that breaks new ground, including live recordings in prison and concept albums about the plight of Native Americans. He also becomes a huge television star, with his own weekly show, and finds love again in the person of June Carter. They have John, their only child, in 1970.

In a way there are two versions of Johnny Cash, one before June and one after. His demons still followed him, and there were still significant ups and downs, personally and professionally, but one senses that these two mavericks had found a refuge in each other. As with most couples, however, it was complicated. Carter Cash recalls, “Well, I mean, 1967, 1968, you know, my father was broken, reached out, my mother was there. She and her family, namely Ezra and Maybelle [Carter], really supported Dad, were right behind him, were there for him.

“Through the early 1970s, after I was born, it was sort of a golden period for Dad. But by the late 1970s his addiction had taken back control of his life, and their relationship was a shambles. It fell apart completely. They were just the paperwork away from being divorced.

“But they learned to love each other again. They forgave. And the miracle is that they had the power to forgive. They got strong again together. And, yeah, there were times when she should have left him. But my mom and dad had a way of holding dear to each other. And, I mean, this wasn’t happily ever after. They did not live happily ever after. They lived happy after all, after everything. They still stayed together. And their love was stronger at the end of their life than it ever had been.”

In his 1971 song Man in Black, Cash explained why he always appeared in the colour onstage. “I wear black for the poor and the beaten down/ Living on the hopeless hungry side of town ...” He wrote many other songs that refer to inequality, such as All of God’s Children Ain’t Free, but, equally, he was friends with the disgraced Republican president Richard Nixon. Carter Cash appreciates this apparent paradox but demurs when asked if his father would write a new verse for the patriotic Ragged Old Flag, given the divisive nature of US politics today.

“People ask, would he support this politician or not? I don’t know. Dad judged people based on who they were ... He was not a politician. He never entered into politics. It was whether he connected with the human. I think he would judge a person based on their own merit, and he wouldn’t necessarily talk about them unless he knew him personally.

“But as far as the world that we’re in today, my dad was religious in that he studied the Bible. He studied the Old Testament and the New Testament. He would find parallels within the scriptures that would probably connect to us heading towards an apocalyptic direction. But the thing is, I really don’t know. I think Dad believed in love.”

Carter Cash says he thinks his father would try to instil hope. “That would be his stance if he were around today, because he would try to find something to be hopeful for and try to help bring people together. I mean, Dad wouldn’t necessarily have ever voted for Richard Nixon, but he was friends with the man, and he saw the good and the bad with him.”

The singer’s son has a point. In Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash, Michael Stewart Foley argues that, without really intending it, Cash fashioned a new model of public citizenship based on a politics of empathy, grounded in his experiences of performing in prisons, finding common cause with Native Americans and so on. He writes: “Johnny Cash seemed unintelligible (or illegible) only insofar as his observers tried to apply conventional political labels to him. As soon as we throw those terms away, though, Cash comes into view as one of the most deeply engaged political artists of his age.”

Carter Cash might agree with that line about empathy. “It’s like he wrote the song What Is Truth, right? And he wrote it about the youth in America at the time. And he saw people struggling to be heard and people asking him that – What is truth? And he would have stood for peace. He would have stood for the end of war. But Dad got on an airplane and went to Vietnam, entertained the troops there and loved them just as much.

“People can theorise all they want. But that actually put into application what he believed. The same with the Native Americans. He cared about people who could not speak for themselves, and he put himself in that place, honestly, because he understood that he was no different from them in the first place. And, in doing so, they accepted him. He intuitively realised, in the deepest part of his heart, that we are all the same.”

Between Carter Cash’s personal memories and Stielper’s more orthodox chronology, they have done a fine job in celebrating and explaining Cash’s work, contextualising it so we can understand the dynamics at play. It contains fascinating photographs, handwritten lyric sheets, letters and, most surprising, Cash’s attempt at abstract art. It is not a critical book, but neither does it shy away from uncomfortable truths.

The book is dedicated to Johnny and June’s grandchildren, the next generation of this gifted family line.

There is also a sense that John Carter Cash has rediscovered his father. “I think in some ways he never grew above his raising – or, as my mother would say, he never got too big for his britches. But my dad had an ego just like every other performer that goes on stage. And my dad was an addict. He was always searching for the next thing that made him feel better personally.”

Equally, however, “he never stopped speaking what he believed in. And he never stopped singing. He never stopped, from the moment, you know, that Jack died. He kept the music. And that healing that he found through the music is what’s so profound and what carries on. And so, I mean, those recordings [with the producer Rick Rubin] that he did at the end of his life were so touching and beautiful because of the strength that’s under that weak voice. And, yes, it’s broken. Yes, it’s sad. But he believed. He really did.”

Forty Shades of Green

Johnny Cash had a soft spot for Ireland, performing here many times. But the sentimental song Forty Shades of Green, which he wrote in 1960, is rarely attributed to him. In the book his son, John Carter Cash, recalls a story about a fan who approached his father after a concert in Dublin in 1980. The fan is quoted as saying, “I love Forty Shades of Green, but you didn’t write it! I recall me dear old mother singing it to me when I was but a boy. ’Tis a fine old folk ballad, it is!” Cash responded, “What year might that have been?” The fan replied, “Was perhaps 1966.” Cash replied, “My friend, I wrote it in 1960.” It sounds like a plausible exchange – even if the fan’s brogue seems implausibly strong – not least because the book includes a letter that Cash wrote on Dublin Intercontinental Hotel notepaper in 1963 in which he tells his family that “Forty Shades of Green is like the Irish national anthem. It’s unbelievable.”

Johnny Cash: The Life in Lyrics is published by White Rabbit