The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: At Home with the Man In Black
As a way of remembering him on what would have been his 80th birthday, we present this exceptional 1971 portrait of the great Johnny Cash by acclaimed Beatles/Rolling Stones biographer Philip Norman——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
The heavy carved front door into House of Cash, Johnny Cash's state mansion, in Madison, Tennessee, swung inward to reveal blinding sunshine and the awe-struck face of a tourist. His eyes grew wider still as he surveyed the sumptuous foyer, its heavy brocades, its gilded Tennessean Louis XIV furniture, its massively-framed photographs of Johnny Cash, his wife June Carter, his new baby son and his celebrated folk-singing mother-in-law. Not until this point did the tourist descry Cash himself, on an unexpected visit, lounging in a high-backed armchair.
"Well — good gosh. I'm all excited!" the tourist said with a gasp.
Cash seldom laughs. His life beats in an unease of his large muscles, in shifting feet, a collar turned up against the draught; nerves more conspicuous since he keeps no flatterers and sycophants to shield him. But laughing, suddenly he relaxes. The serious battlements of his face dissolve. His teeth glow brightly and small. Like now — he chuckled, grasped the corners of the chair above him and repeated:
"'Good gosh, I'm all excited'. That's a great line."
Thus encouraged, the tourist returned with 60 others, followed by 60 more. They were the contents of two excursion buses from Nashville here only to worship, as they had thought, the gravel of the drive. Sandals muffled in the carpet, with their strange, merciless reticence they all swooped at Cash. He rose from the chair, his face anxious, shoulders in a fidget, and walked straight towards them.
"Hi folks, glad to see you," he said, "You all havin' fun?"
"Hell-o," a woman gasped, "How are you?"
"I'm fine, thanks," Cash said, "Hi folks — "
They passed him endlessly and shook hands: old men and matrons, young men, boys with sandpaper heads. Speechless with love, and the fear of being charged a supplement for it, nevertheless few of them could look up into his face. "And I'll put my arm around some of 'em to say 'Glad to see you' ...they'll be tremblin' all over," Cash says, "Like they had St Vitus' Dance there."
For he is all that they desire for themselves; all strong, outdoor things. Country music is the palliative of imprisoned city whites and Cash is king of Country, embodying the most of its supposed virtues. In the monolithic simplicity of his singing, freedom seems conjoined with absolute dignity — they see him moving over trackless land into the sky, but always in tailored black, well-shod. Few such heroes remain to them now that the Wild West has been turned by their enemies into pornography.
His estate is 15 miles from Nashville, and far from the spirit of it. There is a house on Old Hickory Lake; an office across the highway like nothing so much as an English rectory made of some washable substance. Since it is part of their dream of him that Cash should often be absent — air travel being, after all, only a modified form of riding the boxcars — the biggest shock his worshippers normally receive is in the decoration. Cash and June Carter his wife are fond of oyster shades and carved German dressers, not the plated horrors and wild beast horns to be seen in other Country stars" homes. On the mind of the Nashville tourist, the effect of this sudden taste has yet to be measured.