Johnny Cash: from cotton to guitar picking

The Nov. 16 CBS special, “I Walk the Line: A Night for Johnny Cash,” featured everybody from Sheryl Crow to Martina McBride, from Dwight Yoakam to U2, performing some of Cash’s most famous songs. It was a night of extraordinary music and yet it only spotlighted the fact that Cash was unique. No one else can “do” Johnny Cash. It’s got to be the real deal.

The same could be said for the new movie, “Walk the Line,” starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash. It’s very good — entertaining and featuring stunning portrayals — but it leaves you craving the real deal.

“‘I Walk the Line’ played all summer on the radio, and it was different than anything else you had ever heard,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone. “The record sounded like a voice from the middle of the earth. It was profound, and so was the tone of it, every line; deep and rich, awesome and mysterious all at once. Truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified.”

“Walk the Line” writer-director James Mangold was also mesmerized by that “voice from the middle of the earth.”

Johnny Cash grew up picking cotton, later was a door-to-door salesman and served in the Air Force. By the time he was 30, he had become a rock ’n’ roll icon. “Walk the Line” looks at the early years of his rise to fame.

“The early fifties were the height of the smooth post-war sound, Doris Day and ‘easy listening,’” says Mangold. “Muzak was invented the year John released his first singles; even country music of the early fifties was highly produced, the edges smoothed for greater ‘appeal.’ One of the things I wanted the music in the film to convey was the startling roughness, the good humor, the cockiness, the urgency, heat and fire that shook people when these boys first played to crowds.”

Mangold says he hoped to capture some of the electrifying energy that surrounded those early days of rock music.

“Walk the Line” is about the music but it is also a love story — that of Cash for June Carter, played by Reese Witherspoon.

Carter was “a woman who wouldn’t take any sh*t - and that was really important for John,” Joaquin Phoenix says. “He needed that kind of force in his life. He’d always loved her music. But when he met her, he saw that she was completely his opposite in many ways — there was something so grounded and self-assured about her that it taught him a lot about how to survive.”

Witherspoon agrees. “I think that from the minute June gets caught in John’s guitar string, there’s a profound connection between them,” she says. “But they were both married to other people, so they kept that connection and put it into their music. It took many years for them to be fully ready to commit to each other. Yet once they came together, they were never apart.”

“Walk the Line” ends just as Cash’s life, in some ways, was just beginning. His marriage to Carter would last 35 years. June Carter died in May of 2003 and Johnny Cash followed her in September of the same year.

“Walk the Line” will leave you yearning for more Cash and Carter — and maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

crummel at pww.org