John Carter Cash’s new memoir, House of Cash, gives a rare snapshot of his father’s off-stage life.
Johnny Cash is one of the most mythologized men to ever grace the country scene. Between his seeming Dust Bowl beginnings, stumbling onto fame and his various marital strifes, it’s always been difficult to get a sense of who he was as a regular guy. Now we may not have to wonder anymore – Cash’s son John Carter Cash is set to re-release House of Cash: The Legacies of My Father, Johnny Cash, a collection of memories and anecdotes that help fill in the blanks. The book was originally published in 2012 as a hardcover, and was unveiled as a tightly packed paperback last month.
But the book’s tidiness was hard-won. John wrote it largely from a huge trove of notebooks and personal relics kept in the family’s office vault, a trove he only started sorting through in 2003 when both of his parents died just months apart from each other. Despite finding the legacy “in total chaos,” John persevered for five years to make these memories cohesive.
Besides House of Cash, John is also Cash’s only son and the self-appointed guardian of his parents’ legacy. He loans musical memorabilia to museums, puts together CD compilations and upkeeps the Cash Cabin, a recording studio in Hendersonville, TN. “This [cabin] was just a getaway,” he recently told a Rolling Stone reporter. “This was just a place in the woods to go do music. I would sit here with Dad and we’d spend the night. There are beds upstairs. He would fry eggs and make chili. He had his defining recipes. He cooked for me quite a bit because we’d spend time alone together, whether fishing or hunting or just getting away.” One of those recipes is a handwritten instruction on the perfect veggie burger, printed in the memoir.
The Cabin is chock-full of photos, memories and even the stray graffiti, like the “JC” initials branded into the fireplace mantle. There are framed vacation pictures of turtles and crabs taken by Cash in Jamaica, a hand-drawn chord chart for “I Walk The Line” and portraits of John and June in every room. For some, their overwhelming presence might be imposing. But not for John.
“You find these treasures in spirit, first of all,” he says. “To me, those are the greatest treasures — the personal letters between my parents. The things that show spiritual marks in his life, like when he began to have a relationship with my mother’s father, Ezra. His spirit modified and became a lot stronger. And then the letters to me, of course. But there was so much there and it begged to be preserved; it begged to be put [together] in the right away.”
Legacies aren’t just about tangible family heirlooms, though. John tries to “run it as if [Cash] were still sitting in the room,” he says. At the end of the day, the Cash name is the most important part, which means being careful about endorsements – no thumbs-up for tobacco or alcohol companies, endorsements which Cash firmly denied throughout his life. John used this mentality in writing House of Cash as well. He wanted to include what Cash would have wanted his fans to know, be it good or bad. Sure, John details his father’s drug use in the 80’s, similarly to its portrayal in the 2005 biopic Walk The Line. But John also wanted to give insight into Cash’s relationship with his own father, Ray, one that Walk The Line greatly exaggerated.
“My father was always respectful to my grandfather. I really wanted that to be known because I never saw him disrespect my grandfather, and I never saw them have a cross word. And he went to see him every other day at least, if not every day,” John says. “That was the legacy they had together. That’s what they carried on. You know, Walk the Line had to have some sort of antagonist, but Ray really stopped being that negative, dark spirit, probably right after Jack died. And that was a hell of a long time ago.” Fans will recall that Cash’s oldest brother Jack died in a sawmill accident in 1944, but his spirit lives on: John’s youngest son is named Jack Ezra, and though he never got to meet his grandparents, he’s still able to find an emotional connection to them through Cash’s music.
“There’s something magical that happens to every three-year-old that hears ‘Ring of Fire,'” John says. “That’s usually where it starts for most people. They immediately want to put on a black shirt, grab a guitar and sing ‘Ring of Fire.’ It’s happening all over the world right now and it has since the Sixties.”
Despite his wife June’s death, Cash was in decent spirits up until the end of his own life. John and his sisters all felt terribly sad after seeing the final cut of the music video for “Hurt”, but Cash had a lighter take on it. “We were all holding our breath. And Dad was like, ‘It’s going to be a hit!'” With a loud, hearty laugh, John enthusiastically pounds the table the same way his excitable father did. “He’s like, ‘Man, this is great!'”
Just a few months after “Hurt” was released, June passed away. John still fields questions about how quickly Cash died after his wife of 34 years, but he doesn’t think it’s as easy as dying of a broken heart. Cash was a fighter his whole life, and was up until the end. “It’s a real simple thing to think,” he says. “I think Dad died with a broken heart but I don’t think it killed him. I think he would still be making music today if his body hadn’t given up.”