I met Johnny Cash in the Tucson Mountains one day in early 1971. Back then ABC Television gave Johnny Cash a weekly hour show, but took too much control. They wanted him to be a genial host of a wide range of acts, and he was neither host-like nor prone to being an MC. When the show started to tank, ABC did what many programs do - they brought in a lot of stars to people the show hoping for a ratings spike. They taped the show at Old Tucson, and among the stars imported for the week were Roy Rogers & Dale Evans, Kirk Douglas, and "The Over-the-Hill Gang," Andy Devine, Walter Brennan, Chill Wills, and Edgar Buchanan. The Cash Show regulars appeared as well: June, The Statler Brothers, The Tennessee Three, and Carl Perkins. They all stayed at the then-Hilton at Miracle Mile at Drachman. Jim Corbett was mayor, Mo Udall had been in Congress fewer than ten years, and Wilmot Road, parts of which were still unpaved, divided the city from the desert. I was writing for Fusion at the time, a bi-weekly faux-intellectual rock magazine from Boston, which gave me access to the opening night buffet, the filming, and on the last night, barbeque spare ribs with Johnny and June, just the three of us.
Earlier that day Cash was to ride a horse as he lip-synched "Old Paint," but he missed once by a half-beat, and the gaffe showed up in the final televised version. It was to be a sunrise scene, but they shot it west into the Tucson Mountains at sunset. "We're getting too much sunlight," said the director. "Can we cut down on the sunlight?" "Sorry," a technician replied. "That's natural."
At dinner Cash, wearing black, spoke about his career, which was then busting wide open. "Y'know, our lives have changed so much I get to thinkin' abut those places I used to play and I really miss them." Just a few years earlier he had played at an old C&W venue, long since torn down, on the south side of Congress between Granada and the freeway. It had been used as a skating rink and for wrestling. How, I asked him, does he resolve the inconsistency of superstardom and singing about poor folk? "Well, I don't try to resolve it," the M.I.B. replied. "When I write songs I'm honest in the way I do 'em and the way I perform them." June, wrapped in a mink coat with a mink pillbox hat, slid in next to her husband of three years. "I remember what it was like when I was on a cotton farm. I sing songs about poor people and the hard working man with a certain understanding. Nowadays, our way of life is so different from anything anybody else could imagine, y'know, being in this phase of the entertainment world. It's kinda ridiculous, actually."
His enthusiasm for his own show was flagging. "When I went on television, I thought, this is the ultimate. I love to perform and this way I can perform for thirty million a week. But you don't feel that personal thing between you and the audience. We're doing a few personal appearances as we go along, as many as we can work in. That's where it's at for me, eventually."
John's manager Sol is nearby and reacts. "I'm just sitting here kind of stunned," he said, "because I knew you were going to arrive at that conclusion. You're too restless just standing around all day with the show." Sol informed Cash of an upcoming show to be taped at Vanderbilt University and told him that a new kid named James Taylor was to appear with him. "He's hot. He's very hot, and it's his first air date. His first television show."
What rock and folk groups are popular with country audiences? I asked. Richard Nixon was in his first presidential term, and both the war against Vietnam and the anti-war movement were going strong. "Well, Dylan, of course. And Peter, Paul & Mary." June leaned in. "A lot of people like Eric Clapton nowadays."
"I get two underground papers," Cash continued. One's 'Rolling Stone,'" then four years old and published in San Francisco, "and the other's 'The Great Speckled Bird,'" Atlanta's underground paper. On and on we chatted, about Buck Owens, about New York City, and about Woody Guthrie.
Then suddenly Cash said, "I notice the John B. Stetson Hat Company is going out of business and I was sure glad to see it. It says something for mankind that man is willing to use his hair for what God put it on his head for. Why buy a John B. Stetson hat when you can grow hair?┐
┐ 2003 Tom Miller
Tom Miller┐s nine books include ┐Writing on the Edge: A Borderlands Reader,┐ just published by the University of Arizona Press.