Interview by Barney Hoskyns
Barney interviewed Johnny Cash in October 1996. You can hear the full interview at Rock’s Backpages.
The Animated Transcript
Barney Hoskyns is an author and is the editorial director of Rock’s Backpages, the online library of pop writing.
I’ve always hung out with long-hairs. I’ve always hung out with people of that ilk. I’m one of the originals. I had sideburns down to my chin in ’50- For a while there I did. When I started my own TV show in Nashville in ’69, I had a group called The Who on as guests and I forget which one of them said, “Thank god we got somebody on television with long hair,” talking about me. You know. Although it wasn’t all that long.
Do you really need to tour so much? Do you need to work so hard and drive yourself so hard?
For my soul I do. Yeah, for my soul. It’s a gift. My mother always told me that any talent is a gift of God and I always believed it. If I quit, I would just live in front of the television and get fat and die pretty soon. So I don’t want to do that. You know I just hope and pray I can die with my boots on. I’ve been in hospital beds and I don’t want to end it up there.
I went through a period that I didn’t want to sing those old songs again. I finally decided that I was really cheating them and myself. And I started singing all the old ones with gusto and lust. Like I loved them. Those songs, I Walk the Line and Folsom, Sunday Morning Coming Down, Ring of Fire. They’re part of me. They’re an extension of me when I get in front of that microphone. They’re a part of me going through that mic, you know, to that audience. They feel it and they know it if I feel it, you know. They’ll turn it right back to me, the appreciation. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what performing is all about, is sharing and communicating.
Do you think… Could you have ever been a preacher? Were you ever tempted to-?
No. I think in my world of religion, you’re called to preach or you don’t preach. Called by God to preach. I never been ordained by God to preach the gospel. I have a calling, it’s called to perform and sing. I think gospel song is a ministry in a way, you know. gospel music. gospel music is so ingrained into my bones, you know. I can’t do a concert without singing a gospel song. It’s what I was raised on. It was the thing that inspired me as a child growing up on a cotton farm, where work was drudgery and it was so hard that when I was in the field I sang all the time. Usually gospel songs because they lifted me up above that black dirt.
I was going to ask you how the pain is in your jaw these days.
It’s pretty severe.
Really? All the time? Constant?
Almost all the time, yeah.
How do you-?
Except when I’m on stage.
That’s miraculous that it just leaves you. Yeah. Power of music I guess.
Yeah, I pray for that and it works. It doesn’t alter or hinder my performance.
It must be a struggle to have to take pain killers at the same time, to be able to regulate them-
I don’t take them. I can’t take them. It’s like an alcoholic. he can’t drink. I can’t take pain pills.
You must be very brave to-
No. I’m not very brave because for five years I didn’t try to take the pain. I fought it. I had a total of 34 surgical procedures on my left jaw. Every doctor I’ve been to knows what to do next, too. To relieve me of pain, I don’t believe any of them. I’m handling it. It’s my pain. I’m not being brave either. I’m not brave at all after what I’ve been through, I just know how to handle it.
When you look at yourself in the mirror do you feel like an American icon when you look at yourself in the mirror?
God, what a question. Shit. I see the pimples on my nose and I see the fat jaw from the pain where it’s swollen or thinning hair or whatever. Icon? No. I don’t see him. He’s not in my mirror.
You don’t see the John Wayne of rock and roll?
No. … Thanks anyway.
Do you look back now and think, “Wow, dressing in black was one hell of a smart career move?”
No, I never thought about it. How does it help me? I don’t know. What good’s it do? I’m so uncomfortable wearing colors in public. I really am. Even denim. If I’ve got a day off in a town, I want to go out for a walk I’ll put on denim. But almost everything I’ve got the black on.
I was interested to know whether you ever talked about gospel music with Elvis?
Oh yeah. That’s all we talked about. Well that wasn’t all, we talked about girls too. Yeah, Elvis and I, a lot of shows we would sing together in the dressing room and invariably we’d go to black gospel. We knew the same songs. We grew up on the same songs.
John R. Cash
Cash was born on Feb. 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas. He had six siblings and his family raised cotton.
After high school, Cash headed to Detroit and found work in an automotive plant before enlisting in the Air Force.
Cash put together his first band, the Landsberg Barbarians, while stationed in Germany.
After his discharge in 1954, Cash moved to Memphis to make it in the music business.
Cash could do a mean Elvis impersonation.
“I Walk the Line” hit number 1 in 1956 and sold over 2 million copies. Cash couldn’t read music and composed songs in his head. He recorded 1,500 songs in his career.
By the 1960s Cash was playing 300 shows a year.
Cash credits his second wife June, whom he married in 1968, with helping him stay off drugs.
Johnny Cash died from complications of diabetes on September 12, 2003. He was 71.