Inside Johnny Cash’s America: A Conversation with Morgan Neville

by

October 23, 2008

There are artists, and then there are people who use their particular craft to speak directly to the core of the human condition, who buck what is familiar and comfortable in pursuit of what is true. If you don’t yet happen to think Johnny Cash falls into the latter category, or have trouble understanding the worldwide veneration of the Man in Black, congratulations; there’s no better time to start your education. Tonight at 9 pm Eastern Standard Time (10 pm Pacific), The Bio Channel will air a two-hour documentary special entitled Johnny Cash’s America – and I’m here to tell you, it’s pretty sweet. Don’t believe me? Well, how about this to whet your appetite:

The documentary explores the prominent themes of Cash’s life including love of the land, freedom, justice, family, faith and redemption through exclusive interviews, photos and unreleased music and footage. Interviews include Cash’s sister Joanne, son John Carter Cash and daughters Cindy Cash and Rosanne Cash, childhood friends and fellow band mates as well as Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp, Sheryl Crow, Al Gore, Tim Robbins, Loretta Lynn, Snoop Dogg, Vince Gill, Ozzy Osborne, Steve Earle, Merle Haggard and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) all of whom are connected to Cash in surprising ways.

And that’s all to say nothing of the snappy, colorful direction, courtesy of Award-winning filmmaking duo Morgan Neville (Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues) and Robert Gordon (Muddy Waters Can’t Be Satisfied, alongside Neville). Between the two, there’s quite a pedigree of music history, with Neville alone having also directed pieces on Sam Phillips, Ray Charles, and The Highwaymen, among others – so it’s no surprise that Johnny Cash’s America lands a cut above your average biographical documentary. With the film’s primetime debut inching ever closer, Neville waxes philosophical with Country Universe about Johnny Cash’s far-reaching impact, unique views, and the example his life provides for the very nation he loved so dearly.

If I may start a bit personally, how did you first become interested in Johnny Cash, and what compelled you to tell his story in this form?

I mean, I’ve always been a Johnny Cash fan, like I feel like…everybody’s always been a Johnny Cash fan (laughs). He’s just been around my whole life. And I’ve always liked him, and I’ve done a bunch of documentaries related to him, but I’d never done anything specifically about him.

Then at the beginning of this year, Robert Gordon and I were having some beers and a philosophical conversation about Johnny Cash (laughs), and talking about this political season, and just saying, you know, we can’t agree about much as Americans, but we can agree about Johnny Cash, and – why is that? I mean, that sounds like just a trite statement, but it’s really true; it’s really profound, the more you look into it. How is it that we can agree about these fundamental principles that Cash stood for? And in a way, Cash becomes something to remind us as Americans what we have in common. And that became sort of the mission statement for this documentary.

Is that sort of the meaning behind the title, Johnny Cash’s America?

It is, it is. In a way, we kept saying this documentary is as much about America through the prism of Johnny Cash as it is about Johnny Cash [himself] – it’s the idea that Cash’s life and his songs reverberated through all these different realms of America. And it gave us a chance to talk to people you wouldn’t normally expect to talk to, like Snoop Dogg, or Al Gore. Because these people all have strong feelings about him; he reverberated through all these different strata of culture.

Speaking of which, how did you go about choosing who to interview? It really is a wide assortment; I can’t even imagine what that must have been like.

You know, we thought about it, and the more we started reading and talking to people, it became more a point of, “who doesn’t have something to say about Johnny Cash?” So at that point, we said, well, let’s try to get and get a broad scope of voices in there. So we have Republicans and Democrats, and we have politicians and preachers, and we have rappers and rockers, and everything else. And some knew Johnny, some didn’t know Johnny, but they all feel some kind of a personal connection to him, and that was the thing we were looking for.

I mean, even someone like Snoop Dogg, like I mentioned – he dedicated a song ["My Medicine"] to John on his new album; he got his boots made by the same person that made Johnny Cash’s boots because he was so into Johnny. And he was talking in-depth about lyrics, and what they mean – and then someone like Al Gore, someone you wouldn’t think of. But Al Gore met Johnny when he was nine, because his dad was senator of Tennessee – and then when he ran for Congress, in Hendersonville, Tennessee, Johnny stumped for him. And Al Gore ended up speaking at Johnny’s funeral.

So, surprising things like that – and I think that says as much about Johnny as it does these people, that Johnny had friends in the highest and lowest of places. He was never discriminating about anyone in that way; he treated everybody exactly the same.

It seems to me like Johnny, and others like Ray Charles, have sort of become even bigger pop culture icons posthumously – different people like to reference them a lot, and they have these big biopics that come out. Did you have any specific goals as to how you were going to tackle Johnny’s life, given that sort of cultural perspective?

You know, Walk the Line was a hugely successful movie, and it’s a very “Hollywood” take on a very specific part of Johnny’s life. And we kind of took that from the beginning as clearance to say, “now, we don’t have to tell that stuff. So let’s tell the other stories you never get to hear about Johnny Cash.”

And you know, Johnny was so complex – I mean, you could make more documentaries about him that would be completely different, too. He was a serious person; he was deeply patriotic and believed in social justice; he was also a clown; he was also a poet; he was also kind of a romantic figure. He had so many different sides to him – which is why I think everybody can pick whatever side it is they like in Johnny; you know, they can see him flipping the finger and say, “he’s punk rock,” or they can see him singing at a Billy Graham crusade and say, “he’s an evangelical. He’s one of us.” It’s just remarkable that way.

Since you mentioned that, watching the documentary, I was intrigued by this idea that Cash’s vices – his drug addictions, to some extent his sexual exploits – were sort of public domain, but people still acknowledged him as a Christian and sort of accepted the entirety of what he was. Being a little younger myself, I wasn’t around when that was going on, and I found that concept interesting; it seems like most public figures that I’ve witnessed tend to receive a lot of scorn or mocking for those sorts of things.

I mean, Johnny always believed in honesty. If I had to boil everything we heard in our interviews down to one word, it would be “honesty.” We’re so used to celebrities and politicians and everybody trying to kind of whitewash – pretend that they’re completely pure, in a way that humans aren’t. And I think what’s so refreshing about Johnny is he always wore his sins and his faults almost proudly, like a scarlet letter – and he talked about it, he never shied away from it. And he encouraged other people to.

There’s a great story which isn’t in the documentary: Merle Haggard had done time at San Quentin as an inmate, and Johnny had performed for him when he was there. Once Merle became a big singer in his own right, he came on Johnny Cash’s T.V. show in 1969 – and he had never talked about the fact that he had been in prison, and Johnny said, you know, “Merle, you should talk about it.” And Merle said, “no, it’ll destroy my career,” but Johnny said, “no, they’ll respect you more for it.” So he got Merle to talk about it for the first time on his T.V. show and – he was right.

Yeah, and now Merle Haggard is one of the icons of jailed men – not to pigeonhole him; I mean, he’s a lot of other things, too.

Sure. And I mean, that’s kind of the burden of what became Outlaw Country – I mean, literally “outlaw,” in that case (laughs) – but you know, Johnny and Merle, it had to do with that contrarian streak in country music. And I think Johnny – as loyal and patriotic and true as he could be – he was full of contradictions. And one of the points I try to make in the film is, you know, we’re all full of contradictions. America is full of contradictions. And that’s something we should embrace. We say even in the beginning of the film, “Johnny Cash’s America was not red, white, or blue – it was black.” And the blackness contained multitudes. Johnny Cash contained multitudes.

You mentioned at the beginning that part of your inspiration for making this documentary was today’s political climate. Would you care to talk about that a little bit? You don’t have to get too specific if you don’t want, but that’s an interesting thought.

Yeah. I think, you know, our political culture’s become very divisive and poisonous in a lot of ways. And I just think it’s instructive to look at what those commonalities are, and what Johnny brought out in each realm of his life.

For instance, Johnny’s deep religious beliefs were…they were much more about helping the weak and downtrodden, and much less about these kind of wedge issues that we end up in today. I think he would find most wedge issues beside the point. And you know, when he wrote songs like “What is Truth” and people accused him of being an activist, he said, “well – Jesus Christ was an activist.” And I think that’s a great point to make: that if you can strip away the stuff that’s pushing us apart and that people want not to agree on, there’s a lot of stuff we do agree on, you know, that we want to help each other, and ourselves, and the country, and, you know – let’s concentrate on the commonalities.

Good stuff. Now, Steve Earle – I have to mention – makes a really interesting comment at one point in the documentary – and I mean, he makes really interesting comments all the time, Steve Earle – but he makes that comment regarding Cash’s drop from Columbia. Something like, “this town [Nashville] will cast out what it can no longer control.” I’d love to pick your brain a little on that idea.

I will say that Nashville is run – oftentimes – like a business. First and foremost. And businesses like to keep everything manageable, you know, and predictable.

It’s interesting: I made a Hank Williams documentary a few years ago, and Hank became pretty much a persona non grata in Nashville, because he was so uncontrollable – he’d been kicked off the Grand Ole Opry, as you probably know – and when Johnny was unpredictable, he was kicked off the Grand Ole Opry. And then he got back in the fold…but then in the 80′s, when he wasn’t selling records, he was kicked out of the fold again.

And I just think there’s a tension there that doesn’t get talked about a lot. I mean, people in Nashville now always claim that Hank and Johnny were always “pure country,” “pure Nashville,” and that’s just not true, while they were alive.

And yeah, I certainly know where Steve Earle’s coming from. His new album – the whole first song on that album is about “goodbye, Guitar Town.” Like, “I gave it a shot, and I just can’t deal with it anymore.” I think Steve Earle’s one of those people: he’s outspoken; he doesn’t fit into a mold. And I think his point is, if you don’t fit into a mold, then it’s hard for Nashville to handle you.

Cool. Now, the other interesting thing I wanted to bring up was this story about Johnny refusing to sing “Welfare Cadillac” for President Nixon. I actually hadn’t heard about that one; it surprised me a bit. Could you talk a little bit about what happened there, and why it’s so significant?

Johnny Cash speaking with President Richard Nixon

Yeah, I love that story. It’s so instructive about Cash. I mean, here you have Cash, who believes deeply in the office of the President, and every president wanted to meet Johnny – Johnny always would – and Johnny respected to do whatever the President wanted. Yet, when Nixon had requested he sing the song “Welfare Cadillac,” which was basically a song making fun of poor people cheating the welfare system, Johnny said, “well, I can’t sing that. That’s the opposite of what I believe.”

And so he still went to the White House, but he sang this new song he had just written, “What is Truth,” which is…I mean, literally speaking truth to power (laughs). I mean, sitting ten feet from Nixon, singing this song about young people not being listened to, and sort of all the tensions in our culture. And I just think that says a lot about Cash’s ability to play the game and do his duty – but at the same time, not lose his voice.

I just have one last question, and it’s a bit of a devil’s advocate thing – did anybody in the interviews actually have anything bad to say about him? I mean, not just in passing like, “oh, he was flawed,” but actual criticism? Obviously it’s a pretty positive outlook on his life, and I’m not knocking that -

No, that’s good. It is. And honestly, we talked about that, and we thought about who could talk to that, but – nobody could. I mean, especially now, when people can look back on the totality of his career, it’s so difficult to criticize. Not because he was perfect, but…um…

Well, he was very forthcoming about his imperfections.

He was. And it just makes him a difficult person to attack.

I mean, there were times throughout his career – we refer to one or two of those – when people said that his religious albums and stuff got a little trite. Or in the 60′s, when he was writing all these songs about hobos and Native Americans, [people were] saying, you know, “that’s fine and dandy, but you’re not singing about the Civil Rights movement; you’re speaking through the gauze of history. And I think Cash felt more comfortable singing these kind of activist songs through these historical metaphors.

And you know, that’s a valid point, but it also in retrospect seems…nitpicky? (Laughs). I’d say on the whole, it’s hard not to respect him.

_ _ _

Johnny Cash’s America will be airing tonight, October 23rd, at 9 pm EST/10 pm PT on The Bio Channel. The program will also be available on DVD at Amazon.com beginning October 28th. The DVD includes the program plus twenty minutes of bonus footage and a compact disc containing all eighteen songs featured in the documentary, five of which have never before been released. And that’s all for the outrageous steal of $13.99. Be sure to check it out!

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  1. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Ah, do I have the Bio Channel? If I do, I *will* be watching!

    Awesome interview, Dan.

    I love Johnny and I love the stories about him. That Nixon story is just another testament to Cash’s honorableness.

  2. Blake BoldtNo Gravatar says:

    Kudos.

  3. [...] two-hour documentary special entitled Johnny Cash’s America, and leading up to that airing, Country Universe’s Dan Milliken published a fantastic interview with filmmaker Morgan Neville. Good [...]

  4. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent interview. I will definitely be watching tonight.

    But about the Nixon story, the scenario described by Mr. Neville is somewhat different than what Johnny Cash told in his autobiography ‘Cash’ from 1997. I’ve read that book over and over again because it’s such an interesting read and insight into Cash’s mind.

    In it, he tells the story that Nixon requested him to perform ‘Welfare Cadillac’ and ‘Okie From Muskogee’ and he refused the request for both songs simply because he didn’t know them, nor did has band since they were recorded by different artists. He goes on to say how the media made a big deal about it with headlines like ‘Cash Tells Off Nixon’, when in reality, he just didn’t know the songs and opted to sing tunes he knew.

  5. CMWNo Gravatar says:

    Really cool interview, Dan. I’ll have to see if I get the Bio Channel.

  6. ReiNo Gravatar says:

    I’m truly amazed, You guys are just so amazing! KUDOS!

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