Friday, May 25, 2012

The Johnny Cash autobiography: "Did you start this fire?"

For Memorial Day weekend -- an American holiday of remembrance and tribute -- a music fan might night read the astonishing autobiography of Johnny Cash. His story is a reminder of those time-honored values of independence and plain old American self-reliance that often seem just catchphrases in a political season. And Cash turned his ornery self into legend with such wild abandon it's difficult to imagine there isn't a theme in country music he didn't live to tell about: heartbreak, drugs, religion, redemption, and family are the bedrock not just of his songs but of his life.   
And there's a documentary in the works, The Winding Stream, that helps tell the story of the Cash and Carter families for a new generation -- in interviews and the memories of those who were there, and those who carry on the legacy of A.P. Carter and his family from Maces Springs, Virginia. If you'd like to help contribute to The Winding Stream project, there are more details below.
In country music history John R. Cash's life and music are as monumental as the craggy features that glared out of countless albums and photos that now form his legacy.  It's as if he grew into the role out of the life he led, without much pretense to the whims of record charts and a music industry that seemed somehow indifferent to his career. Record labels didn't know how to "package" his careening personality fueled by drugs and alcohol as he banged from rockabilly to country to gospel on his way to becoming, simply as he had been all along, The Man in Black.

But his life story always made good copy in the press, and along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash really created the outlaw image in country music. Elvis broke the rules under the watchful eye of Col. Parker, but in real life Cash trashed them without anyone's help at every turn. His fifty-year career proved you can become your own monument, if you live long enough to tell the tales. And though Jerry Lee may now be "The Last Man Standing" out of a million-dollar-quartet, Johnny Cash was the baddest of them all.

His Harper Collins autobiography, simply titled
Cash, is a train-jumper of a life story and the reader is advised to hang on from the start:

I remember Daddy telling me about a time when he'd been riding the rods -- clinging to the crossbars under a moving boxcar, a terribly dangerous way of riding unobserved. When the train stopped in Pine Bluff and he crawled out, he found a railroad detective standing right there. He suffered a beating and a cussing-out, which he just had to stand there and take if he didn't want jail or worse. But when the train started moving again and the detective began moving away as the caboose came by, Daddy jumped on and hung there, cursing that railroad bull until he was out of sight. He laughed about that; he got in a few licks of his own and he got to ride in style out from under those boxcars.
That same bull, by the way, picked on another hobo a while later. It wasn't his lucky day; the hobo pulled a gun and shot him dead. My name is John R. Cash. I was born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. ...
Cash's battles with booze and pills and powders are stuff of legend (and movies too), but what may be surprising are the difficulties he faced after his particular style of religious conversion got him into trouble: "When I spoke out I simply made my statement. I never said, 'You need what I've got because you're wrong and I'm right' and after I declared myself I didn't set out to prove myself: I didn't start acting any differently ... There was never any dividing line between Johnny Cash the Christian and plain old Johnny Cash."

He wasn't always this self-effacing. "Did you start this fire?" Cash is asked after one early incident that left the woods ablaze. Full of "amphetamines and arrogance," he's not willing to cooperate: "No. My truck did and it's dead, so you can't question it." The judge goes on: "Do you feel bad about what you did?" Cash: "Well, I feel pretty good
right now."

The popularity of the Carter and Cash family name is stronger than ever, thanks to the efforts of many musicians who have revived the tradition and kept it alive. The music of succeeding family members themselves has shown an amazing versatility: Johnny and June Carter Cash, Carlene Carter, Rosanne Cash, as well as the members of the Carter Family III, have all carried on in the family tradition, and each with a unique approach.

Through an earlier Kickstarter campaign The Winding Stream was able to finance interviews with many of the remaining family members. Harringron writes, "Our most notable interview is the one with the legendary Johnny Cash, granted to us in the last weeks of his life. We believe he allowed this interview for one simple reason - he thought it was critically important that people know the Carter Family story. He felt he owed them."

The Grammy Museum, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Experience Music Project have all expressed an interest in exhibiting the documentary once it's completed. There are also commitments of benefit screenings for MusiCares, the Grammy Foundation's philanthropic arm that helps musicians in need. As Harringron's Kickstarter proposal states, "That work can't start happening until we get the film done." 

Because The Winding Stream is being done in conjunction with the non-profit Center for Independent Documentary, donations are tax deductible. The current Kickstarter campaign has reached a third of its $50,000 goal, with 28 days left until the deadline of Thursday, June 24. If you're not aware of how Kickstarter works, this is an "all-or-nothing" fund-raising effort: The Winding Stream will receive funding only if the $50,000 goal is reached by the 24th. This phase will pay for the rest of the editing and some other post-production costs. 
There will be a phase 3 campaign to raise the remaining funds needed for a final edit. To find out more about the documentary and how you can contribute visit Kickstarter, and  for more daily information visit The Winding Stream Facebook page.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A phenomenal book! That put me back in contact w the Big Guy upstairs, too.. I'm now want Cash's book he wrote in '86 called 'Man in White', which is abt the apostle Paul 'confrontation' on the road to Damascus.