When Johnny Cash Kissed Me: How the Country Star Changed My Life
Louisa Young on Finding Yourself Beyond the Work You've Done
I met Johnny Cash in the late 1980s, at his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, in his dim sitting room, among June’s glass-fronted cabinets full of crystal and cut-glass. He was not yet the King of Americana, Godfather to every singer-songwriter in the Western world. He was an old country star, and it wasn’t clear whether he’d ever shine again. But he’d recently signed to a new label and released his seventy-third album. Seventy-third!
I say old. He was younger than I am now.
Officially, I’d come from London to interview him about the new album, but actually I’d come because I wanted to, because I loved him. I was 28, a successful freelance journalist, having a great time writing for magazines and national newspapers, cultivating my editors, traveling the world, writing to commission and saying what I wanted to say. It was, by all accounts, a dream job. But I was beginning to get restless. In the words of the old song, “Is that all there is?”
He’d spent much of the day with other journalists, mostly British hacks with less than no interest in country music. Unsurprisingly, he was a bit tired and fed up, though in a polite way. I like to hope I was a breath of fresh air.
My first question was direct: “Are you still the Man in Black?” I asked.
He replied with his old response, quoting the lyrics of that song, about wearing black for the poor and the beaten down.
I wondered if that was still how he felt, nearly 20 years after the song first came out.
“Now more than ever,” he replied, shooting me a glance. (Looking back on it another 30 years later, I think of one silver lining to death: that old idealists like Johnny Cash don’t have to see what an even greater mess we are in now, despite all their hopes and work.)Those songs, that pure, deep, thundery, oh-so-human voice, all mine, for that February afternoon.
We talked a little stiltedly about the evils of humanity, and I mentioned a Kris Kristofferson song he recorded: Here Comes That Rainbow Again. Like many of the best country songs, it’s a dramatic scene, basis for a tiny novel: a roadside diner; two dustbowl kids, some truckers and a waitress. The kids ask, how much are the candies? “How much have you got?” the waitress replies. “We’ve only a penny between us.” “Them’s two for a penny,” she lies.
“Them candies ain’t two for a penny,” says a trucker, and “So what’s it to you?” the girl says. Then when the truckers leave, “She called ‘Hey, you left too much money!’ ‘So what’s it to you?’ they replied.”
Ah, the economy and richness of country lyrics! The whole story in a couple of lines. Many novelists could learn from these techniques.
Do you think it’s cheesy? I think it’s beautiful, and I dare say John Steinbeck thought so too when he wrote the scene the song’s based on, in The Grapes of Wrath.
“Know that book?” Johnny said. “I was that book.” He pronounced it “Grapesawrath,” the way Rose of Sharon is pronounced Rosasharn. He smiled at me, for the first time, and I remember thinking it was like being smiled at by the Hoover Dam. “You like that song?” he said, and he pulled over his guitar. And tuned up.
I know it’s true. I was there! I have the photo of him and me, smiling at each other and squinting in the low spring sun, with the daffodil he picked from his garden tucked into my ponytail. I still have the daffodil. But I could hardly believe it then, and I still can’t quite believe it now.
He sang for me for hours. He picked songs he thought I’d like, and he took requests. Those songs, that pure, deep, thundery, oh-so-human voice, all mine, for that February afternoon.
As an interview, it was a complete failure. But really, why should we expect musicians to talk? It’s not their natural mode of expression. This was how he choose to communicate, I realized. By singing. And why not? He was being what he was.
The other thing is, I turned off my tape recorder Why? Johnny Cash over there on the sofa is being your personal jukebox and you turn the tape off? I could be playing it back now, as I write this! I’d like to. But on some level, I knew this was not something which could ever be repeated. Couldn’t be, shouldn’t be.
During the afternoon though, between June drifting down the stairs to see how we were doing, and the sun setting over the lake, he said something which stuck with me. He said, “You have to be what you are. Whatever you are, you gotta be it.” And he kissed me on the cheek as we said goodbye.I didn’t want to ooh and aah on paper about John Steinbeck and Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. I wanted to be them.
So what was I? A writer for sure: an ambitious writer, a writer who wanted more, wanted to do the very best she can. I wanted to spend less time skittering on surfaces; more on going in deep. To use Isaiah Berlin’s analogy: less fox, more hedgehog.
I came away that day with his kiss on my cheek, knowing that even though journalism was great, and had given me the gift of this exceptional day, I didn’t want to be a journalist anymore. I didn’t want to ooh and aah on paper about John Steinbeck and Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. I wanted to be them. Artist. Creator. I wanted to produce the work that would make other people ooh and aah. Work that would last.
So, obviously, it was about books. Books are serious, grown up, long-term. And I was serious, and grown-up, and long-term. Now was the time to face that. To become what I became.
Thirty years on, I’ve published 15 books, made a living from it, won prizes, been translated. My most recent novel, Twelve Months and a Day, is about love and ghosts and music and being who you are. I’ve made an album too. Would I have, without Johnny’s telling me what was what? Who knows. Maybe I’d have got the message from somewhere else, in the end. But I got it from him, there, then.
Years later, I dreamed I was at a Johnny Cash gig. He was singing a song I’d never heard before: Give Me My Soul for a Boston Crown. “I’d better remember that,” I thought, in hypnopompic mode, “so I can google it when I wake up…” And when I did, all Google offered was dentists in Massachusetts. Turned out the song didn’t exist. So I wrote it, from memory, and put it on my album. Dedicated it to him, and that afternoon, and that gift.
A version of this essay appeared in the Guardian in 2003. Louisa Young’s most recent novel is Twelve Months and a Day, available from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.