Many times during his life and in the years since his passing, the observation has been made that Johnny Cash possessed the voice of God. Not an angelic voice, mind you, because there’s a huge difference; Cash would be the first to self-deprecatingly admit that he couldn’t always hit the high notes. The qualities that never abandoned him, however, were wisdom, a weariness, a tolerance for the most fallen of our species, and a prevailing sense that redemption was possible, even in our darkest hour. If there is indeed a bearded man waiting to welcome us into the afterlife, it sure would be nice if he had a Tennessee twang, peppered with Cash’s baritone inflections of sympathy and understanding.
As the spotlight once again shines brightly on Cash for the biopic “Walk the Line,” a new understanding of the complex artist is available for all to see. Similarly, when Cash’s own resurrected words are paired with those of the people who lovingly crafted “Line,” you can’t help but once again feel as if you’re hearing the voice of God.
“Oh yeah, I expect my life to end pretty soon, you know I’m 71 years old,” a fatigued, tender Cash offered in his powerful final interview, conducted by MTV News’ Kurt Loder three weeks before the legend’s death (see “Johnny Cash: Original Gangsta”). “I have great faith though; I have unshakable faith. I’ve never been angry with God … I’ve never turned my back on God.”
In “Line,” the darkest hours of the Man in Black’s existence are recounted in painful detail, displaying the difficulties he had maintaining such faith. And much like Cash’s early years, in which a mutual appreciation for music and spirituality was born from a love for his mother’s hymn book, the people behind the movie were originally touched by Cash at an early age, only to develop a deeper connection with each passing year.
Hear from the legend himself in “MTV News RAW: Johnny Cash,” on Overdrive.
Watch a six-minute sneak peek of “Walk the Line” on Overdrive
“I knew a lot about his music,” Reese Witherspoon beamed recently. The actress, who transformed herself into Cash’s wife June for the movie, has said that when she was growing up in Louisiana, Cash’s music permeated the air like an ever-present, comforting breeze.
“I was [a fan] long before I made the movie,” remembered the film’s director, James Mangold. “I was a huge Johnny Cash fan from the time I was a kid.”
It was Cash’s ability to convey the universal struggles, absurdities and hopes within us all that could touch both a Southern girl like Witherspoon and a Northern boy like Mangold alike. Cash’s is the only name enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. As he entered his twilight years, his versatility was further reaffirmed by a constantly expanding list of admirers including everyone from U2 to Pharrell Williams to Social Distortion and Justin Timberlake.
Cash similarly established a mutual appreciation late in life with actor Joaquin Phoenix, the star of one of his favorite movies at the time. “Cash loved ’Gladiator,’ ” Mangold recently remembered. “He knew all the lines.
“He was thrilled,” the director said of Cash’s reaction to the news that Phoenix would portray him in the biopic. “John was a very trusting man. He was very easygoing, a very cool guy. When you’ve got someone like Joaquin who, frankly, is very similar, a very cool actor, John knew that we were moving in the right direction.”
Sadly, Cash died before he and Phoenix could meet face-to-face. But to the end, the legend appreciated and returned the love that such younger artists had for him.
“I’m aware that some of them do [admire me],” he said at the time, before acknowledging the crushing loss of his soul mate just three months prior. “My little world has been kind of limited lately, since June’s death. I’ve kind of hung close to home here; yeah, I did hear from Kid Rock through Hank Williams Jr. that he would like to meet me.”
It was this mutual appreciation — and influence — of artists that kept Cash startlingly relevant into his eighth decade of life. Nominated for seven MTV Video Music Awards in 2003, Cash stubbornly refused to fade into elderly irrelevance, recording songs that had originally been performed by the likes of Soundgarden, Tom Petty, Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails.
“I felt very emotional doing the ’Hurt’ video,” Cash said of the NIN cover song that had him competing against the likes of Timberlake some 50 years after he walked into Sun Records (as depicted in “Line”) and refused to take no for an answer. “[Producer] Rick Rubin played the song for me, and when I heard the record I said, ’I can’t do that song, it’s not my style.’ He said, ’Let’s try it another way, let me do something.’ ”
It was at this point that Rubin, Cash and video director Mark Romanek decided to focus on the messages of regret and fury that existed within the lyrics, hearkening back to such powerful Cash classics as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.”
“It’s all fleeting,” Cash said of the message he tried to convey as he looked back. “Fame is fleeting, so are all the trappings of fame fleeting. The money, the clothes, the furniture.
“Of which,” he grinned, “I have lots of.”
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Decades before he would decry his fame, Cash had been a pioneer, touring around the country with the likes of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis as they sought the legendary status that would eventually be theirs. In “Walk the Line,” Phoenix portrays Cash from his early career up until the late ’60s, when June saved Cash from his demons.
“I knew more about the Carter family, actually, than I did about Johnny Cash as a child,” remarked Witherspoon about the significance of June Carter Cash. “We had to study the history of country music in the fourth grade, and that’s who we learned about. We did a whole play about the history of country music.”
Beyond what June did on her records, however, her greatest contribution to the world of music may have been marrying Johnny Cash. Judging by the stories told in “Walk the Line,” and by Cash himself, he may never have survived the decade without her.
“I had definitely lost my way,” Cash recalled of those days. “In 1967 … I was on amphetamines really, really bad, and I was totally insane. I got in my Jeep and I drove down to Chattanooga, and there was a cave there … a monstrous cave, it went for miles back up onto Lookout Mountain. I went into that cave with my pills, just exploring, you know.
“I had all these wild ideas about finding gold, Civil War [memorabilia] or something in this cave,” he continued. “I’d keep going and I kept taking the pills, kept taking the amphetamines, and after a certain point, after I’d been in there about three hours … I tried to close my eyes, but you can’t close your eyes for long on amphetamines. I laid down and I said, ’God, I can’t take it anymore; I can’t make it any further, you’ll have to take me now, I want to go, I want to die.’ ”
It was stories like these that Cash would recount to Mangold, and would eventually fuel Phoenix’s haunting portrayal. And it was the power of Johnny and June’s love that would give the lead actors the roles of a lifetime, playing characters so vivid that no screenwriter could have made them up.
“June … she was my solid rock,” Cash said lovingly, with a glaze settling over his eyes. “She was always there; she was my counselor, comforter, everything else. What a wonderful woman she was.”
“The one thing I feel like we did, working with John and June on the script,” Mangold said of their collaboration before the subjects of “Line” passed away, “is we found a great frame, and a really great story about a real triumph — both musically, and in love.”
“Certainly in the time I was talking to John after June’s death, for the few months he was alive after that,” Mangold remembered, “that was a very lonely time for him, because he had lost his great companion.”
Phoenix and Witherspoon, meanwhile, began their own special journey together.
“It’s helpful to go through that process with someone; you don’t feel so frightened and alone,” Witherspoon remembered of their transformative performances. “[Joaquin] related to the character … he was very committed to the role, and he practiced really hard, and worked that guitar.”
Ultimately, “Walk the Line” fondly looks back on two people perhaps unlike any the world will ever see again. Cash possessed a charm, a wisdom, and a forgiveness that we can only hope we’ll encounter again in the afterlife. And just as importantly, Cash was able to temper it all with a sense of humor that remained with him till the end.
“We were together 40 years,” Johnny Cash said of June. “We worked on the road together since 1963, and we got married in 1968.” Then, smiling through the pain, he offered up one final pearl of wisdom. “And the secret for a happy marriage? Separate bathrooms.”
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