September 12, 2003

Johnny Cash: American Rebel

Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Rick Rubin and others still speak of Johnny Cash in a somber tone — his music, his integrity and how he remains largely unknown. “I knew my dad very well,” John Carter Cash says. “I never understood him completely, and I don’t think I ever will.”

Johnny Cash: American Rebel — an original documentary by CMT — is mostly stunning, using interviews, concert footage and home movies in an attempt to sort the mythical Man in Black from the man. The through line: Johnny Cash matters. The documentary aired on Sept. 12, the anniversary of Cash’s death, but it is available online for free.

American Rebel plays some familiar notes. The overrated Walk the Line covered Cash’s relationship with his father, his rise at Sun records, his addiction to amphetamines and his pursuit of June Carter. That film was a love story. This documentary, thanks to the greatest comeback in music history, finds the three-act poetry in Cash’s life.

Amid the talking head shots, some musicians sing pieces of Cash’s songs, which slows the momentum. His work has been covered to excess on record and in tribute concerts. Only Ray Charles’ interpretation of “Ring of Fire” deserves special recognition.

Among the revelations: Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” is a re-working of Beverly Maher’s “Crescent City Blues,” a torch song from 1953, and he won a Grammy for writing the liner notes to Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.

Roseanne Cash’s earliest memory of her father is the heartbeat of American Rebel.

“This big man with a big hand was holding my hand,” she says. “His presence made me feel really safe, like there was this person on the earth who really understood who I was. When I was 12 years old, I wrote him about how I wanted to do something big and important with my life. How I longed to do good things and great things, and that I loved poetry and music.”

Cash wrote back: “I see that you see as I see.”

The film conflates the importance of Cash’s two live prison albums — At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin — because both were meaningful in his fight for prison reform. For the record: Folsom Prison may be the greatest country album of all time. San Quentin is a disappointing attempt to re-create Folsom. There are two highlights: “A Boy Named Sue” and Dylan’s “Wanted Man.”

The Folsom Prison album (1968) and The Johnny Cash Show (1969-71) — his Saturday night variety show on ABC — were Cash at his zenith. But the network fought Cash over guest and song selection. ABC objected to the word “stoned” in Cash’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” the booking of accused communist Pete Seeger and Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done,” which is about heroin addiction. Cash won every fight. ABC canceled the show after two seasons.

Johnny Cash never backed down. When he visited the White House, Richard Nixon requested Cash perform “Welfare Cadillac,” a song about how poor people cheat the welfare system. There were two problems — the song was by Guy Drake and Cash didn’t make fun of poor people.

Cash was the people’s champion. He played prisons and the White House, Billy Graham television specials and the Viper Room in West Hollywood. Once, when he performed at a Native American reservation, some members of the tribe stood outside, because they couldn’t afford a ticket. Cash stopped the show and let them in. “I’ve got very little Indian blood in me myself,” he said. “Except in my heart, I’ve got 100 percent for you tonight.”

In the late 1970s, Cash’s record sells dropped. By the 1980s, he was playing state fairs, then half-empty theaters, then dinner theater. This footage is hard to watch. He was dumped by two record labels — Columbia in 1986 and Mercury in 1991. Cash said his next stop was Branson, Mo.

That’s when Rick Rubin — who had produced albums for the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Slayer and Red Hot Chili Peppers — contacted Cash.

“I thought of the Man in Black, and I thought of him almost as a mythological character,” Rubin says. “Who’s that guy, and what else would he sing?”

Cash made American Recordings (1994) in Rubin’s living room — just the man and his guitar, his first album without a backing band. It is a raw, vital effort that belongs on the shelf next to At Folsom Prison. It won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Cash and Rubin made three more albums together before his death in 2003. American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) featured “Hurt,” which received six MTV Video Music Award nominations.

Kurt Loder conducted Cash’s final interview, and American Rebel marries that audio with archival footage of Johnny and June in embrace amid green pastures.

Cash said: “It’s all fleeting, as fame is fleeting. So are all the trappings of fame. … (June) loved the ‘Hurt’ video. She was my solid rock. My counselor, comforter, everything else. What a wonderful woman she was. … I expect my life to end pretty soon, you know. I’m 71 years old. I have great faith though. … I forgave myself. God forgave me. I figure I better do it, too.”

His voice is haunting, the images ethereal.

He is wearing white.