I was fortunate to be a part of the Johnny Cash experience for several years both as an engineer-musician for legendary Nashville producer, Jack “Cowboy” Clement and on projects with Johnny Cash and producers Jimmy Tittle, Brian Ahearn, Earle Poole Ball and Marty Stuart.
During those years, we made several albums, met many interesting people and travelled across America. John had an open heart to everyone's day-to-day situation, which probably contributed to his health problems. Regardless, he kept moving forward to reemerge into today's music scene as the definitive icon he's always been.
Even in light of Nashville's record labels frequent failures to recognize true value, Johnny Cash's music was not to be stopped. The whole world would once again hear profound music from this giant.
Time, health issues and the loss of his wife and soul mate, June Carter Cash, have all broken the man's body. His spirit and music, however, will live on forever and in my heart, Johnny Cash will always be the kind and caring man who took the time to encourage me.
As I was digging through my memorabilia, I found a picture from the days when I first met and worked with John.
A photo of me (Jack Grochmal), Johnny Cash, E.J. Butler and Jack "Cowboy" Clement taken during the very first Johnny Cash project I ever did. It was taken at The Sound Emporium, formerly Jack Clement Recording Studio.
To some people, Johnny was an enigma. There were the posters, albums, and photos of him with the stern, serious look, and, yes, dressed in black. He looked very unapproachable. But Johnny had a wonderful sense of humor which was greatly appreciated during some of those long, gruelling studio sessions and road trips. He always knew when to break the tension.
I probably worked on at least 6 albums with him and Jack Clement. Each was a totally different experience. From the first time I sat at the console in the control room, it was evident that this man was unique -- in his voice, presence, styling.
When I first met Johnny and Jack, I had just returned from California and a whirlwind round of recording projects. Lee Hazen, a recording engineer and close friend, called me and said that he wanted me to take over working with Johnny & "Cowboy". I agreed and was immediately swept into the whirlpool of the Jack & Johnny Show. Exciting. Fast-paced. Demanding. I really loved it.
Those two guys together were a dynamo duo. They actually grew together at SUN Records in the beginning. When I later went with "Cowboy" to Memphis to meet Sam Phillips, it was an experience I'll never forget. Sam and Jack passed around a bottle of Tanqueray to me as they explained how they recorded Elvis and Johnny Cash at Sun Records.
It was a drizzly raining night, and the three of us were standing outside SUN Records on Union Street as they went through the history of SUN. Sam later explained how pressed he was after the Elvis deal with RCA, and that Johnny Cash had come to him and asked to be released from his contract so he could pursue a deal at CBS. I don't remember Sam mentioning getting any payment to let John out of his agreement with SUN... but he let him go.
While at Sun, Johnny showed his songwriting talent when he wrote: "You're My Baby" for Roy Orbison and "Get Rhythm" for Elvis Presley (among others).
As far as the studio experiences are concerned, my memories are from the projects with John coming in to work and not being able to truly perform because of some crisis going on with someone he cared about. He was like that. If you were his friend, you were always his friend. If you had problems, they were also his problems, and he would do whatever he could to help. These traits are what inspired the loyalty to him from his musicians and associates.
It seems to me the best times were at "Cowboy" Jack Clement's home studio where John could let his hair down and be a regular guy... that's when the best times were had. I never did any work at the cabin studio in Hendersonville, but I think that in that place he also was able to relax enough to do what he did.
Johnny lived in Hendersonville, Tennessee, a small town northeast of Nashville. To residents of the community, it was common to see him at the local convenience market or pushing a cart down the aisles of the grocery store. In spite of the fame and the notoriety, he was always friendly, and he would greet people with a smile and a "Hello".
Johnny has touched the lives of many people. And he added a new generation of fans when he recorded "Personal Jesus" by Depeche Mode and of course, "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails, making him the oldest artist ever nominated for an MTV Video Music Award (his clip for "Hurt" garnered six nods, including video of the year!)
I just want to express my heartfelt sympathy for the family and all the people who loved John. Jack Clement has so many videos and stories about John...They were best friends for nearly 50 years.
So, to my good friend, I say "Good-bye, John" and thank you.
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