10 Things You Should Know about Johnny Cash

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Cash mural in Little Rock

By Colin Woodward

Yesterday marked the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Johnny Cash. Despite the fact that he’s been dead for more than a decade, and historians have written much about him since then, Cash continues to be the subject of misunderstanding. Here are a few handy things to know about the man from Arkansas.

1. He wasn’t always the Man in Black. Yes, black became Cash’s trademark. But that was later in his career. For years, Cash dressed in different colors. Sometimes red, sometimes white, and yes, sometimes black. Just look at the album colors from his early days, such as Song of Our Soil. Cash definitely is not wearing black. Cash didn’t become synonymous with black suits until the 1970s, when he famously called himself the Man in Black in a song of the same name. He also called his first memoir, published in the mid-70s, Man in Black. But for years Cash was a man of many styles, musically and fashion-wise.

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2. Cash wasn’t a sharecropper. Cash was raised on farms in Arkansas. But his family was not made up of sharecroppers. Sharecroppers were the lowest of the low in the agrarian South. They were people who did not own their own farms and in many cases did not own a home. Many were itinerant workers drifting from town to town to find work. Most of what they ended up harvesting was given back to the person who owned the land. To get through the season, sharecroppers often were extended credit, which they could not pay back, which kept them in a constant state of debt–much like today’s payday loan sharks preying on the lowerclasses.

In Dyess, where Cash spent most of his young life, his father Ray was paying off his own farm. His house was built by the government, but it was not free. Ray Cash wasn’t rich by any means, but he was not a sharecropper. Ray might have done some sharecropping in Kingsland, Arkansas–where he and Johnny were born–in the 1920s. But Ray had many jobs. Certainly by the time he moved to Dyess in 1935, he was not a sharecropper. Nor was Johnny at any time. Johnny, in fact, hated farm work and couldn’t wait to leave his hometown and the cotton fields behind him.

3. Johnny Cash was not dirt poor. Yes, the Cashes were, by today’s standards, poor people. The Dyess house, at its most crowded, was a place where a family of nine lived in three bedrooms. Young Johnny did not have electricity or running water growing up. But that was not uncommon in the depression era South (let alone Arkansas), nor was a lack of indoor plumbing unheard of in other parts of the country–North or South–well into the postwar period.

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The bed that Johnny shared with his brother jack in Dyess

The Cashes were middling farmers who enjoyed such luxuries as a battery powered radio and a stand-up piano. Johnny was never starving or short of clothing. He and his family suffered from no major illnesses. His town was literally brand new, and the soil the Cashes worked was some of the best farm land in the world. Johnny received a decent public high school education, and his family had a car before he left home in 1950. Johnny Cash had it about as good as you could have it in the rural Arkansas of his time.

4. Johnny was not Native American. For a long time, Cash told people he had Indian blood in him. And if you didn’t know better, a glance at the cover of his 1964 album Bitter Tears would convince you that Cash was Indian. But he wasn’t. It was one of the many tall tales Cash told throughout his life. It might have been based on what he thought was truth, but there’s no factual basis for what he believed. Being Indian gave Cash mystique and credibility. But Cash was no more Native American than Elvis was. And that is to say, not at all.

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5. Johnny didn’t play guitar much until he was in the Air Force. After Cash became a legend, some of his friends and neighbors back home in Arkansas liked to tell stories about Cash playing guitar a lot in Dyess. But he didn’t, for the simply reason he didn’t have a guitar then. Cash might’ve messed around with a guitar a bit growing up, but he didn’t own one, and he wasn’t passionate about playing music until the 1950s. He certainly wasn’t walking around his hometown all the time with a guitar slung over his back.

6. Cash did not pay heavy dues. Johnny was a man blessed with a distinctive voice and sound and a genius for writing great songs. While his background was humble, his rise to fame was amazingly quick. In the summer of 1954, just a few months after arriving back in the States from Germany (where he served in the Air Force for four years), he cut his first song at Sun Records. That song was “Hey Porter,” which wasn’t released until the next year. It was a hit. Others followed.

Sure, Cash played many small town venues in the early days. But that was–and is–standard for musicians. Cash was talented, but also very, very lucky. Few singers today, after all, get to share the bill with Elvis or Carl Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis or in some cases, all three. Cash had the advantage of making music at a time when the economy was booming, people were literally wild about rock and roll, and a small label such as Sun could have national impact. It was a remarkable time in American music. It doesn’t exist anymore. Cash was fortunate to live in the golden age of the young American white male musician. His road to success was a short one, much shorter than that of the Beatles.

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By 1958, Cash was at Columbia Records, a much bigger and wealthier label than Sun. Johnny stayed there for 28 years. How many musicians today cut their first record in three months, have it be a hit, then sign to a major label a couple years later? Very, very few.

7. Johnny never completely sobered up. Cash famously sought help for his drug addiction in the fall of 1967. With the help of June Carter–his lover but not yet wife–and the Nashville doctor Nat Winston, Cash sobered up. A bit. Sort of.

Had Cash not gotten help, he probably would have died from drug related health problems or some act of self-destruction, such as a car wreck. Cash quickly improved. But he was not free of addiction. He never was. By the time of his Folsom concert, recorded in January 1968, Cash was looking and feeling better. But he was still popping pills.

Cash’s bass player, Marshall Grant, said Cash didn’t sober up for real until the birth of John Carter Cash in 1970. But by the late-70s, Cash was taking pills again.

To put an exclamation point on his attempt at sobriety in late-1967, Cash spun a tale about him–strung out and in despair–crawling into Nickajack Cave in Tennessee to die. Johnny might have been suicidal at the time. But the cave story is one of many Cash myths. At the time the story supposedly happened, the cave was under water. And later versions of the story were clearly embellished, if not outright fairy tales. The cave story, nevertheless, serves as a powerful symbol: Cash emerges from darkness into the light. He emerges from a horrible drug addiction reborn.

By the 1980s, Cash was in and out of rehab. He also underwent several major surgeries for health problems. Cash died in 2003 at the relatively young age of 71. But he lived far longer than he probably should have. He was lucky to have endured an epic drug addiction and the many near fatal accidents that came with it.

8. Cash wasn’t a walking contradiction: Cash has often been called a man of contradictions. It’s not clear whether or not his friend Kris Kristofferson meant Cash when he wrote in his song “The Pilgrim” of a man “partly truth, partly fiction,” a “walking contradiction.” The song might’ve been about Kristofferson himself, or John Lennon, or Dylan, or any number of people. True, Cash often did things that seemed contradictory. A man of faith who was also a junky who trashed hotel rooms? That doesn’t seem right!

Yes, Cash’s behavior often contradicted his words. But Cash was consistent about many things. He always spoke out for prisoners, Native Americans, and the downtrodden. Christianity was always a part of his life. As were drugs. He told the truth, he lied. He was a family man who cheated on his wife. He was compassionate and abusive.

Cash was a man of contradictions, perhaps, but so are all of us. The reason he could connect with people is because they saw themselves in him and loved him despite his shortcomings.

9. Nashville was never really Cash’s town. Cash is buried in Hendersonville, a suburb just north of Nashville. Johnny loved his Hendersonville mansion, which became a hang out for many musicians and celebrities. But Johnny had no roots in Tennessee, and he had a love/hate relationship with Music City. Cash was born in Arkansas and rose to fame in Memphis. His move to Nashville in the late-60s was mostly one of necessity. When Cash had his comeback in the 1990s courtesy of Rick Rubin, it began in California, where Cash cut American Recordings.

For a while, Cash hated Nashville, and it hated him. In the 1960s, he was banned for a while by the oh-so-traditional Opry following a night when a stoned Cash angrily kicked out stage lights at the Ryman. Nashville and the Man in Balck eventually made up. Cash later shot his TV show in Nashville. But Nashville never really knew what to do with him.

For years, Cash moved around. As a musician, he went first to Memphis, then California. His settling in Nashville might seem obvious or inevitable, but it was a move done out of practicality and reluctance. Cash would’ve been happy to have lived somewhere else. And it might have been–God forbid!–Branson, Missouri, had things not gone different in the 1990s.

In 2007, Cash’s home in Hendersonville burned down. It is a fitting metaphor. Cash’s greatest legacy probably doesn’t belong in Tennessee. The Johnny Cash Museum is in Nashville today. But it could just as easily have been built in Memphis or Little Rock. In fact, as far as structures go, the restored Dyess house–finished in 2014–might be Cash’s most lasting legacy.

10. An authentic legend? In an era of “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” and “reality” TV, we should examine historical figures with extreme care and caution through an analytical lens. Cash had authenticity. He was also a man who liked to tell stories. Many of them embellished at best and false at worst. Unfortunately for historians, Cash left a relatively thin paper trail. Much of what he did is shrouded in myth. Usually, however, the real story is more interesting than the legend.

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Podcast 106: Bruce Jackson

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Bruce Jackson has a had a long, varied, and brilliant career as a teacher, photographer, folklorist, writer, and filmmaker. Colin first encountered his work while researching the prisons in Arkansas. Bruce visited prisons in the 1960s and 70s, trips that produced photos for his books Killing Time, Cummins Wide, and Inside the Wire.

Bruce was born in New York City, joined the Marines as the Korean War was ending, and studied in New Jersey and Indiana before winding up in the English Department at the University of Buffalo, where he still teaches. He also tried his hand at engineering and took the law exam before winning a Guggenheim and a fellowship from Harvard, both of which allowed him to travel to Arkansas to do his prison research.

During his career, Bruce has met everybody from Johnny Cash to Michel Foucault. Recently, he’s worked with the Wooster Group, which has been home to actors as varied as Spalding Gray and Willem Dafoe. As he tells Colin, he calls himself “lucky.” Thankfully, his somehwat accidental creative process has produced original and revealing work.
Listen to the podcast here: http://amerikanrambler.libsyn.com/podcast/episode-106-bruce-jackson

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Podcast 107: Anniversary, Petersburg, Led Zeppelin

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Petersburg, Virginia

Colin recently celebrated his 7th wedding anniversary in (where else?) Petersburg Virginia! He talks about the Old Towne and how Petersburg presents some great and not-so-great things about the urban South. Also, Colin weighs the merits of Led Zeppelin vs. Grand Funk Railroad.
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The Secret to a Big, Happy Family: Patterson Hood Plays the Broadberry

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Patterson Hood at the Broadberry in Richmond in December 2017

By Colin Woodward

Patterson and I go back a ways. Well, not really, but I feel like I know him by now. It started as a Richmond thing. I first heard of the Drive-By Truckers about ten years ago. Like most great things,  I learned by word of mouth. It took me a while, though, to buy one of the band’s albums. The first one was Southern Rock Opera.

It was hard to listen to at first. Raw. Angry. Unpleasant, even. Patterson sounded like a punk hillbilly with a real mean streak. Hearing about a car crash in which a young woman is partially embedded in the dash board, while her dead boyfriend lies nearby? The tires spinning as Skynyrd still places on the radio? It seemed like a sick joke. But I hung in there.

The Cooley songs were like comic relief on that first listen. But then I settled in with the Patterson songs. I quickly realized there was an intelligence to it all, a poetry, and appreciation of history. A love of the South. A hatred of the South. A need to understand and explain it.

I’m not from Alabama. I’m not even from the South. But I’ve lived in Dixie for about twenty years, most of my adult life: Baton Rouge, Richmond, Little Rock, Colonial Beach, Richmond again. I’ve seen the Civil War battlefields, the monuments to Lee and Forrest and Jeff Davis. And now, I’ve seen killer Nazis parade through the streets of a city, 70 minutes from my house.

I’ve studied the South. I’ve written a lot about it. I’ve loved it. I’ve hated it. And I understand where Patterson is coming from. The duality of the southern thing. The haters, the counter-protestors. People from Tennessee coming to Richmond to wave their Rebel flags, only to have their tires slashed. MLK and Wallace making a name for themselves in the same fucked up place: Alabama.

Players have come and gone from the Truckers. Jason Isbell. Shonna Tucker. John Neff and some other folks. The Truckers wouldn’t be the alt-country Beatles without the interplay between Cooley and Patterson. But, at heart, it’s Patterson’s band.

Patterson is one of those guys who you want to hang out with. Talk to. You don’t want him to get too big, even though he deserves it. I mean, he’s in his 50s now and has kids and all. He seems to be doing alright. He has an accessibility about him. Maybe it’s just about staying rooted. Johnny Cash had that quality. Patterson has it, too.

Years ago, when I listened for the first time to Southern Rock Opera, it sounded like something I hadn’t quite heard before. It was as if rap and rock and country had been smashed together. Even if the Truckers called it a rock opera, it wasn’t like Tommy. It was louder, rougher, soaked in whiskey and frustration. Frustrated lovers and horndogs. People frustrated over how things change, or never seem to. But most of all, it was the story about a band paying it’s dues and there being no happy ending at the end of it. Instead, there was a plane crash.

Patterson and the Truckers, I quickly learned, were tackling the big stuff. Death, money, working, relationships. All great bands address those kinds of things. The Truckers, maybe, were being more straight-forward about it. And they showed, years before Outlaw Country came onto Sirius XM, you could sell records with zero big radio play.

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The day I met Patterson in Richmond I bought a vinyl copy of The Dirty South. Patterson signed it with a quick loop of a name. Patterson had given a concert in an alley behind Deep Groove records in the Fan.

Deep Groove is owned by Jay Leavitt, who knows Patterson from his Alabama days. Jay knew Sam Phillips, also from Alabama. Paterson’s dad is David Hood, who played bass in the Muscle Shoals rhythm section.

Alabama is popular again. The Truckers. Isbell and the 400 Unit. The Secret Sisters. Jamey Johnson. Richmond is a good town for Patterson and the Truckers. Patterson has lots of good fans here. The Truckers’ past talk of racism in the South is relevant to what’s going on to Richmond and the rest of the country. And an album like Southern Rock Opera, even though it could have had no idea Trump would be president or that Nazis would kill someone over a Robert E. Lee statue, is timely, even prescient. It’s also reassuring: times will be bad, but they always have been. Politicians will always kinda suck. Some bands don’t last long enough. You’ll inevitably have neighbors that are assholes. “I’ve seen good times come and go, I’ve seen bad times drag on,” sings Cooley on SRO‘s “Guitar Man Upstairs.” People may be dicks, but we can try to empathize.

Patterson had extended “family” in town for the Broadberry show. Not just Jay from Deep Groove (and who had picked up Patterson at the airport), but also Wes Freed, the cowboy hat wearing artist and musician who fits in well in Richmond, being an art and music guy who loves the Fan.

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At the Broadberry you got, well, a Patterson show. Just him and a guitar.His favorite guitar, I believe, that was stolen a few years ago. Patterson was pissed about it, as he should be, but he got the guitar back somehow.

With that guitar, he played a lot of songs. Truckers songs. Tunes form his solo albums. A song about Walt Disney. Early stuff like “Sinkhole” and “Heathens.” He also played “What It Means” from the band’s highly praised, most recent album American Band. He played my person favorite, “The Righteous Path,” though I didn’t recognize it at first because it sounded so different being plucked on his acoustic guitar.

The songs were good. The crowd was good. As the night went on, Patterson told more stories. Maybe it was a coincidence, but as he told more, I got closer to the stage. I started to feel like I was in Patterson’s living room and I wanted to be nearer the guitar and the stool. Southerners like to tell stories, and Patterson is one of the best at doing it.

He talked about the early days of the band. About getting sick in the back of a small car as it traveled over icy roads in the snowy mid-West. On the joys of putting out a vinyl record even when your last gig involved playing before 30 people. And I might have heard him wrong, but Patterson said something about having kids. I didn’t know he had any.

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At one point, Patterson was talking about a long drive through Ohio when some drunk guy in the back (obviously from Ohio) started yelling. “Woooo!!!” Patterson acknowledged the interruption. It didn’t rattle him much, but it was obvious he didn’t like it. A few minutes later, another “wooo!!!” from the back. This time, Patterson said, “Shut up, motherfucker, I’m talking.” Classic Patterson. Don’t mess with an Alabama boy.

The show went on, and I got the feeling that even after two hours, Patterson seemed like he had a lot more to say, that he didn’t want to leave the stage. I wanted to stick around and say “hi” to him again, but it was getting late and I needed to go home.

See Patterson and the Truckers enough and you’ll start to feel like you’re part of a family. Fans talk about DBT as if they were an uncle who fought in World War II or a great, great grandfather who got shot at Shiloh. They’re tough and well traveled. They don’t take any shit off of anyone. Maybe it’s a southern thing at heart. You’re not at a show, you’re in somebody’s kitchen, having a glass of Scotch and it’s a good time and place to just listen to somebody talk for a while.

I looked around the Broadberry. There was Wes. There was Jay. And there I was, again. All part of Patterson’s family.

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Podcast 75: Jeffrey Abugel

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Jeffrey Abugel is a native of New York who now calls Petersburg home. He talks with Colin about growing up in NYC, living in California and writing about surf music, and suffering long winters in Iowa before landing in Virginia. He is an authority on depersonalization disorder, a prevalent but not well-known affliction that has historical roots in existentialist philosophy but has only recently entered the lexicon of mental health. Plus, Jeff discusses his work on Edgar Allan Poe, a new novel, and playing cards with Al Pacino.
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Podcast 74: The Amerikan Rambler Christmas Extravaganza!

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Colin runs down his December, which included an accidental attendance at a Confederate Pride Christmas Parade in Mechanicsville and a welcome night at a concert given by by Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson Hood. Also, to start the show, Larry and David and Marlon Brando stop in for a spirited reading of The Night Before Christmas. It’s Christmas! You’ll laugh and cry (over your credit card bills)! Throw another yule log on the fire and snuggle in with some free online content!

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Podcast 73: Erin Devlin

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Erin Devlin is a professor of History and American Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. She has written a book Remember Little Rock (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), about racial integration in Arkansas’s capital from the 1950s onward. As she discusses with Colin, the story of Little Rock integration was one of progress and setbacks, and it’s a story that resonates not just throughout the South, but in the North as well. It is also a story important to today’s politics and battles over public education.

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