Title

How Los Angeles Transformed Johnny Cash

Watch the KCET Must See Movie, "Walk the Line," about the life of Johnny Cash, on Friday, May 5 at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday May 6 at 3:30 p.m on KCET.

 

Johnny Cash, the iconic outlaw of country and western music, may have come straight out of Arkansas, and he may have launched his career in Memphis, but in his story, unlike those of many other legends in his musical tradition, the Golden State also plays a major role. Even his casual fans understand that, many of them having come to his vast discography through his breakout late-1960s live albums “At Folsom Prison” and “At San Quentin,” both recorded in the titular California correctional facilities. But as much as the Man in Black appreciated California's remote spaces of desperation and isolation, he also spent, at different times, quite a few important years of his life in Los Angeles, a city that witnessed his rise into popular culture, his years of drug-addled chaos, and his professional rebirth.

Cash first moved to California in the summer of 1958, along with his first wife Vivian Liberto and their first three daughters (including Rosanne, who would grow up to become a famous singer-songwriter in her own right). Just 26 years old, he'd already scored hits with “I Walk the Line,” from which the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line” would take its title, and “Folsom Prison Blues,” which would become his standard show-opener. He'd recorded them at Memphis' Sun Studios, the musical launching pad of such stars in the rock and roll, country, and rockabilly sphere as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley, though only Cash had the distinction of recording Sun's first long-playing album. When an offer too good to refuse came in from Columbia Records, Cash took it and used the money to buy a house formerly owned by Johnny Carson on Hayvenhurst Avenue in Encino.

To Cash, as to so many of the new arrivals in the city, Los Angeles promised a different kind of freedom than he'd enjoyed elsewhere in America. He saw the city, according to “Johnny Cash: The Biography” author Michael Streissguth, as “musically and culturally a new world, far removed from Nashville's parochialism and Memphis' isolation. Though home to thriving jazz and rhythm-and-blues scenes and world-class orchestral music, the city unflinchingly welcomed rockabilly, western-swing, honky-tonk and cowboy styles.” (It also provided new collaborators, such as Cash's co-writer on the prison song “I Got Stripes,” local disc jockey Charlie Williams.) It turned out that “a country-and-western singer scarcely needed Nashville in Los Angeles. There was a host of recording and publishing companies, high-energy disc jockeys, and a growing movie and television industry which promised bit parts, movie-soundtrack work, and the hope of Gene Autry fame.”

Story continues below

johnny cash and the tennessee three 1963.jpg
Johnny cash and the Tennessee Three | Public Domain

Talking to a Los Angeles Times reporter soon after his arrival in town, Cash proclaimed a kind of musical purism, claiming that “the invasion of pop influences had chased him from Tennessee.” Streissguth notes that he “named no names and conveniently omitted reference to his own concessions to the teenage market, but he was clearly perturbed about the preponderance of rock and pop which he said was attacking the purity of country and western music. Los Angeles must have meant freedom to Cash, a place to liberate his music from the pressures of pop influence.” It also means a chance for “steady movie work, to follow in Elvis Presley's path,” and as early as 1956, then-manager Bob Neal “had begun sniffing around for substantial film roles for Cash, attempting to sell the brooding young man as an actor in the John Wayne and Gary Cooper mold.”


Around that time, with his band the Tennessee Two (which would become the Tennessee Three), Cash played “Town Hall Party,” a jamboree show broadcast live from an enormous ballroom in Compton — which then projected the very opposite of the outlaw image it would decades later — for three hours every night on Channel 11, KTTV. Soon they were appearing regularly on “The Jimmy Dean Show,” “Country Music Jubilee,” “American Bandstand,” and seemingly every other suitable television music venue besides. Cash's career as an actor, however, didn't just stall out but flamed out after he performed the theme song for and starred, as a hard-boiled thug, in the 1961 heist picture “Five Minutes to Live.” Later retitled “Door-to-Door Maniac” for the drive-in set, the film, in the words of “Johnny Cash: The Life” author Robert Hilburn, “was low-budget even by low-budget standards,” and Cash's acting, untrained and without guidance from director Bill Karn, “over the top.”


Stu Carnall, Cash's manager at the time, “continued to look high and low for more roles, but he knew the word-of-mouth on the first film was going to make that difficult. Predictably, reviews were brutal, especially about the acting.” Worse, the effects of Cash's drinking and especially drug habits were visible on screen. Having begun taking amphetamines and barbiturates, ostensibly to control his moods, as his career took off, he'd grown utterly dependent on them: “I was taking the pills for awhile,” as he put it in a 1997 interview, “and then the pills started taking me.” They provided a means of coping with not just professional but personal stress: his time in Los Angeles coincided with the dissolution of his marriage to Liberto and the simultaneous development of his relationship with country singer June Carter, the romance at the center of “Walk the Line.”

Cash's main reason to stay in Los Angeles, so original Tennessee Two bassist Marshall Grant eventually realized, was the easy availability of pills there compared to Tennessee. The singer was likely high on them when, Hilburn writes of one night in Beverly Hills, “he picked up a container of propane gas and threw it in the trunk of his car without making sure the lid was secure. As Cash headed home at around 30 mph on a residential street, the container fell over and the gas leaked into the passenger compartment, where it suddenly exploded — perhaps from the spark of Cash's ever-present cigarette.” He somehow managed to escape the moving vehicle with “only minor bruises and burns” before it ran into a lamppost and caught on fire, and with characteristic stoicism, “declined medical attention at the scene.”

Cash did much more damage in 1965 on a fishing trip to Los Padres National Forest with his nephew, burning down over 500 acres and killing 49 condors after, under the probably influence of booze and pills, letting a fire get out of control. By that time he'd already made a partial escape from Los Angeles, realizing even in his troubled state that he needed to get out of the city, but, as Hilburn writes, “not back to Tennessee. He liked the independence of California living rather than in the tight Nashville music community” and ended up choosing Ventura County's Casitas Springs, which, “with land and crops for horses, was about as rural and isolated as you could get and still be only an hour outside Los Angeles.” Still, with his family life dissolving and his hopes for a viable acting career extinguished, he returned alone to Nashville the year of the Los Padres fire.

The year 1968, which saw Cash attempt a bizarre form of suicide and “rebirth” in Tennessee's Nickajack Cave, curtail his drug habits, and finally marry June Carter, also proved a turning point in his career and the development of his public image. Though he'd been playing prison concerts since the late 1950s, that year he went on the prison tour (accompanied by Hilburn, a Los Angeles Times music critic) that would propel him to a new level of fame. Both of the resulting albums “At Folsom Prison” and “At San Quentin” topped the Billboard country chart, the latter also topping the Billboard pop chart. The next year would see him break the Beatles' sales record by moving an astonishing 6.5 million albums and helm a variety show of his own — but emphatically not one produced in the capital of entertainment. He insisted on taping at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry. “This is my home,” he said. “If any real country show is going to go, its going to go from here.”

cash in folsom
American country singer and songwriter Johnny Cash walks inside the gates of Folsom Prison, preparing to perform his fourth concert for inmates there, California, 1964. | Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

By 1970, Cash was the biggest-selling recording artist in America, but after that peak came a wide, deep valley. His music fell out of fashion during the 1970s and 1980s, as did that of so many musicians popular in the previous couple of decades, to the point that Columbia dropped him from their roster — and at some point, the drugs returned as well. A fair few Cash scholars would cite 1984's “Chicken in Black,” a novelty song and music video wherein the singer's receives a brain transplant from a bank robber and his own brain gets transplanted into the body of chicken, as his artistic nadir, and it took almost a decade thereafter for professional salvation to arrive. That salvation took the large, bearded form of prolific music producer and Def Jam Records founder (and, ironically, later Columbia Records co-president) Rick Rubin, who struck up a conversation with Cash after a 1993 show at Santa Ana's Rhythm Café.

Just three months later, Cash and Rubin met in Los Angeles, at Rubin's house overlooking the Sunset Strip, to get to work on a new album. Rubin, well known for the “stripped-down” aesthetic and encouragement to cross genre barriers he'd brought to other artists, got especially powerful results in combination with Cash's underutilized talents. Rubin recorded him alone in his living room, nothing but a Martin Dreadnought guitar for accompaniment, playing covers of songs like “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails and “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode. The first fruit of this cross-generational collaboration, Cash's 81st album “American Recordings,” began a series of releases that would serve as the backbone of the Man in Black's late period of greater vitality — albeit of a deeply world-weary, death-aware kind — and relevance than ever.

The “American” albums, which had Cash periodically returning to Los Angeles to work with Rubin, came to six in total, two of them released after Cash's death, which famously followed Carter's by just four months. With his tireless performing across the country, his unmistakably distinctive interpretation of its music, and his unflinching eye for its social problems, Cash had, by the end of his life, cultivated the image of one of the purest, most unapologetic Americans in music. A devout Christian but also the self-described “biggest sinner of them all,” he may not have liked Los Angeles much, but unlike a garden-variety flag-waving country crowd-pleaser, he knew not to heap too much scorn on, and how to take advantage of, the big cities standing apart from the “real America” as his musical tradition might define it. Los Angeles nearly destroyed Johnny Cash, but it also made him.

 

Top Image: Johnny Cash honored with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame | Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty Images.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading