Daddy Sang Bass: Interview with John Carter Cash

His lineage is country music royalty. His father was Johnny Cash, whose posthumously released “American V: A Hundred Highways” was recently #1 on Billboard charts. His mother was June Carter Cash, a member of the legendary Carter Family-pioneers of folk, country, and bluegrass music.

John Carter Cash was the associate producer of all his father’s American Recordings albums, produced his mother’s final album “Wildwood Flower” (2003), as well as The “Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family” (2004). He was also the executive producer of the film, “Walk the Line.”

His most recent project (2006) as a producer is “Voice of the Spirit: The Gospel of the South,” a stunning compilation of bluegrass, country, and black gospel music. The album features artists such as Mavis Staples, Vince Gill, Earl Scruggs, Mighty Clouds of Joy, Del McCoury, Rodney Crowell, as well as his own father, Johnny Cash. 

Steve Beard had a chance to talk to John Carter Cash about southern gospel, his faith, and his family.


Thunderstruck: You were raised in a musical home, the blood in your veins is that of musical pioneers and legends. What was it like growing up hearing stories about the Carter Family and then living in the tornado that was the career of your mom and dad?

Johnny Cash and John Carter Cash 1975

John Carter Cash: To be very honest, I took it for granted. It was just normal to me. I was surrounded by it all the time. I knew that they were larger-than-life figures and that many people—including my peers, and fans and the press—looked up to my family. I had to mature in many ways before it really sunk into my spirit what it was all about. In my late 20s was when I started to realize the impact that my family had had historically on music. The Carter family had—Maybelle Carter’s guitar playing in particular—a wide and varied impact on many people around the world, as did my father. I learned to respect it, but it took a while.

When you gained an appreciation of their reach and influence, was it liberating or confining? In other words, did you feel painted into a corner?

Early in my life it was that way. I felt as if I was surrounded by shadows and that I had to live up to a certain expectation. I think it was liberating, finally. When I looked at it in an intellectual sense, the Carter family’s musical legacy is something that I was respectful of and proud of. I felt that I had an obligation to research it as much as I possibly could. It’s about the freedom. It’s about understanding. It’s about reaching into your heart. As a producer, that’s where I found my peace. It’s looking into the past of music and finding a common thread that leads to the now, and into the future.

As a producer, is there a temptation to lead an artist in the direction of a marketable song rather than one that reflects their gut-wrenching soul?

It’s about the artist’s gut-wrenching soul. What they desire, what they love. It is not about the perfect radio hit, or sounding like the current material that is out there, or fitting into some demographic scale. What it is about to me is following that desire, following the heart, letting it be the lead, enhancing it with the artist if necessary—clarifying it, finding the voice. I don’t like to inhibit an artist or push them in a certain direction. I like to follow their lead, follow their heart.

I think that is quite evident on this album. Despite the fact that it is all within the same genre, the album showcases diverse and eclectic artists who put together a very cohesive message.

Thank you.

What is it about southern singers—perhaps your dad could be looked on as an example—who sang such sanctified hymns and yet also seemed to relish in singing about cheating, drinking, and murder? [Laughter] There is something very unique about the southern artist’s knowledge and experience of sin and redemption.

Well, to know redemption, you have to know sin. We’re all light, we’re all dark. We don’t walk around redeemed and glowing. What we walk around as, hopefully, is an image of that redemption. If we were in all light, would anybody even notice? We have to go through the fire to gain our strength. That’s the nature of us, I believe, as human beings. And that’s where it comes from. That’s where that vision of redemption comes from—is through the pain, through the suffering. And that’s a commonality. That’s around the world with people. And everybody can relate to that. Yes, southern music has a lot of drinkin’, prison songs, and murder songs. But there’s something to relate to there for the listener. I’ve struggled through my pains. I’ve found redemption. And my greatness is because of something bigger than me that forgives me.

It seems as if the Carter family, and your father in particular, seemed to relish singing about both the sin and the redemption.

Yeah, that’s where he got it. He got it from the Carter Family, from Jimmy Rodgers, from male black blues singers that would sing about redemption in one song and murder in the next. It’s an ancient, common thread, if there is such a thing in American music. My dad got it from others who came before him. It sort of became his stamped trademark.

The Carter Family recorded over 300 songs. One was Gospel and the next would be a gallows ballad that the man would sing before he was hung for a murder that he had committed. Songs were written by the Carter Family post-mortum, after the character singin’ the song was dead. But that stems back from old English and Irish folk ballads. I mean, that’s where it all came from. It came from across the sea. So you know, redemption, pain, and suffering are common threads in the Carter Family’s music as it is my father’s.

Your dad had the trilogy, Love, God, and Murder. Have you thought about doing…if this album was considered the God have you thought about doing other albums tapping into this stuff?

You know, it has crossed my mind to do a series on related, in one form or fashion, a Voice of the Spirit series. But the Voice of the Spirit is a lot of different things, so it’s interesting that you would bring that up. But I haven’t looked at it quite that way. But it has crossed my mind.

Your dad sings “Unclouded Day” on the album. What was that recording session like? What was the greatest lesson that you learned from your mom and dad?

Well, my father had…I mean, it was four days after my mother’s funeral and I was working on the Carter Family’s Unbroken Circle record, and I went in to record the Carter Family’s material. And we recorded two Carter Family songs, a gospel take, and another one called “I Found You among the Roses” that is a forlorn love ballad that hasn’t been released. And then he wanted to record some from his heart. And he kept on making music that day, he recorded five or six songs. And “Unclouded Day” seemed to be perfect for this project. So it was a session that he’d done for me that was right before he had gotten back to work on what would be the fifth American record. But it was the very first session after my mother had passed away.

It was recorded in my parents’ house. It was actually recorded in my father’s bedroom. You know, my dad, in understanding who my father was, to him it was therapy. To him it was his way to continue to love my mother. To find a voice. You know, my father’s eyesight was fading and his passion before had come from reading the Bible. He couldn’t do that anymore. He could listen to music and he could sing. And so that was his way of continuance. That was his path even to grieving was to continue to sing, to let his spirit express itself, to have somethin’ to look to, to have somethin’ to look forward to, to have something to plan on. He was very weak, he’d dealt with pneumonia over and over again, but he didn’t stop. And I’d have to say that the greatest lesson I’ve ever learned from my parents—from both of them—was that persistence, was that in the face of pain and adversary and suffering, you don’t quit. That’s what it was about to my dad. That’s why he kept going.

You’ve had three years to cope with the loss of your dad. He was a King of the Jungle to everybody else, but to you, he was your dad.

The thing about it is, no matter the faith or the strength of the entertainer, we are all human. And under the human first and foremost, and under the man, I knew the simple man. The allure had long since past from my view of stardom in general. I knew the man in his simple form. But the lion I knew wasn’t based upon the world looked at him, it was based upon his continuance, the strength he had inside. I mean, he nearly died many, many times, and had risen back up through interior strength provided by God. And that’s who he was. That’s the lion. The lion, my father would have said, was not him, the lion was Judah, the lion was God, the lion is strength through him.

What is it about your desire in tapping in to your parents’ treasury of the musical form of your family. This album has a very distinctive Christian, obviously Gospel. What is it about all the song subjects that attracted you to this particular set of songs and this particular theme—what does faith mean to you?

A project like this takes on its own form as it’s built. I didn’t set out to make it just the way that it was. I sort of let the Spirit develop it. So it came about based on the artists’ love, what the artist was feeling at the time. Some people took my direct suggestions to sing those songs. And some people had ideas of their own. It takes on a form based on a whole larger than the sum of the parts. That’s what it becomes. And I believe that the Spirit is in there, I truly do.

Some of the people I had just wanted to work with before. And they were on a list of ideal artists, but the list took on different forms. And a lot of that was the people that are on the record, they had the inspiration to do it. That’s what the record was about.

Was Walk the Line painful or cathartic?

Well, it was both. Working on WTL was something my parents themselves had set in motion far before. My involvement in WTL was with the script, was working with the producers pre-production. That’s getting it all set up with FOX and all that. That was my involvement. And you know, I mean, I don’t know if I’d ever do another movie again. I like to work in the studio and make music. There’s a lot in the movie industry that would keep me away.

You know, the movie is about my parents’ love affair. That’s what it’s about. If you look for anything else, you might be lacking. Even if you look for a message about spirituality or their relationship with God—what the movie’s about is their love affair. But it tells what they wanted it to tell. If you look for a story of lasting love, you’ll find it. And if you look for anything else, then we’re going to have to make another movie, or make one that’s four and a half hours long.

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