A legendary hellraiser with a dark and volatile edge, the late country-music icon Johnny Cash also had a warmer, more vulnerable side, a dimension of his persona his former wife and a co-author intend to show in a biography, a book that will reveal the Man in Black as a man of letters.
“Before there was a love story between June and Johnny, there was a love story between Vivian and Johnny,” said Ann Sharpsteen, the co-author of the book being written by her and Vivian Distin, Cash’s first wife (formerly Vivian Liberto). Cash died Sept. 12 of complications from diabetes resulting in respiratory failure, at the age of 71. But he lived long enough to get the ball rolling, approving use of his letters, revelations of his life before the liberation, and torment, of fame.
“It’s about 50 percent done,” Sharpsteen said. “Johnny had given permission to use these hundreds of hundreds of letters that they exchanged during their courtship, which lasted about three and a half years.
Putting it on paper
“Vivian kept them tucked away for 50 years — no one has seen these letters,” Sharpsteen said. “She wanted to give a candid, frank story going into great detail about her life with Johnny ... There are so many inaccurate assumptions.”
Cash had a need to put his experiences down on paper; befitting a man with an outsize life, he wrote two autobiographies. What’s perhaps less well known is his art for the letter.
“Johnny wrote every day over the course of three and a half years, sometimes multiple letters in one day,” she said. “It gives astonishing insight into who he really was.”
“It’s really her story,” Sharpsteen said. “Most of it will be in the first person and it will cover the period when she met Johnny as a 17-year-old student. She met Johnny in a skating rink. On a bet Johnny asked her to skate and that was the beginning of a great love story. That was three weeks before he was shipped off to Germany.”
In July 1950, fresh out of high school, the 18-year-old Cash enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, and was soon stationed in Landsberg, Germany. It was during his four years in the service that Cash developed a passion for music; he formed a group, the Barbarians, and enjoyed the joys of those early paying gigs: Sharpsteen noted that he once performed at a March of Dimes benefit, “playing for $1 a song.”
In 1954 after being honorably discharged, Cash returned to the United States and married Liberto. “He asked her to marry him over the phone,” Sharpsteen said. “The connection was really horrible, so he was shouting over the phone, ’WILL YOU MARRY ME?’ ”
The couple took up residence in Memphis, where Cash took broadcasting classes, worked as a door-to-door appliance salesman and laid the groundwork for the musical career to come. Liberto had four daughters by Cash, including Rosanne Cash, a singer and songwriter in her own right.
First blush of success
Cash auditioned for the legendary Sam Phillips at Sun Records, with a group he started shortly after leaving the Air Force. The first release by Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, “Hey Porter” and “Cry, Cry, Cry,” sold more than 100,000 copies, and established Cash as a country talent to watch. “Folsom Prison Blues” came in 1956, followed by the song that for many remains a Cash classic, “I Walk the Line.”
Cash had his contradictions. He gave credence to the outlaw aspect of popular culture but was, according to Sharpsteen, “very much a God-fearing man. In these letters, after they’d fallen in love, he told (Vivian) that infidelity was something despicable to him. It was not even in his realm of comprehension.” Indeed, Cash’s steadfast belief in marital fidelity was the basis for the lyrics of “I Walk the Line” — a song that Sharpsteen said Cash wrote with Vivian in mind.
But Cash and temptation were no strangers. “Johnny’s relationship with June began seven years before his divorce from Vivian,” Sharpsteen said. “Vivian struggled for years to save her marriage, but drugs got a hold of him. The pills made him do a lot of things he never would have done.”
The success of the early songs led to Cash signing with the Columbia label, and to a period of great creativity — in 1963 Cash had a No. 1 hit with “Ring of Fire,” co-written by Merle Kilgore and one June Carter, daughter of Mother Maybelle Carter of the legendary Carter family. It was also a time of trial: Drug abuse followed, culminating in Cash’s arrest in Texas for attempted smuggling of amphetamines in October 1965 and, later, a serious car accident and a near-fatal 1967 drug overdose in Georgia.
By then Cash and Liberto had divorced. In 1968 he married June Carter, who previously had helped Cash accept fundamental Christianity, and to come to grips with the demons of substance abuse. Despite relapses Cash would suffer over the years, they remained married until the end of their lives; June Carter Cash died in May, the Man in Black four months later.
“Her story is such an inspiration,” Sharpsteen said of Liberto. “It will have incredible insights into his life. Women will be inspired by Vivian’s story and how she went through a difficult time, and really reunited with Johnny at the end of his life. They always maintained a warm relationship, but especially at the end. The last meeting they had together, they laughed and cried about old times.”
‘It should be you’
“He told her, ‘if anyone should write a book about me, it should be you. I want to do what I can to help.’ He threw 150 percent of his love and support behind this project, and it’s sad that he died when he did.”
Sharpsteen, a television writer and producer, has done long-form biographical programs on Cash, Dwight Yoakam and others. Formerly living in Kansas working on news and entertainment shows, Sharpsteen said she moved to Nashville and started to freelance as a writer and producer. “I pretty much stopped doing television producing because I wanted to do this book,” she said. “It’s sort of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something that really means something.”
The Sharpsteen-Distin effort will follow recent announcements of the planned publication of “Johnny Cash — He Walked the Line,” written by country and western music journalist Garth Campbell. The timing of that book’s pending publication is said to have been pure chance for Campbell, a lifelong Cash fan.
“We are not cashing in on Cash,” publisher John Blake told Reuters shortly after Cash’s death. “This is a warm and heartfelt tribute to a man who changed the face of music. It just happened to be in preparation when he died.”
“We had planned to publish in 2004 and then tragically he passed away,” Blake told Reuters. “It will now be out in November.”
Not to be outdone, Sharpsteen and Distin are pressing ahead with the help of veteran literary agent Henry Morrison. “Two publishers have expressed interest in doing the book,” said Morrison. “We decided to pull back until a reasonable period of mourning passed.”
Morrison said Cash had been enthusiastic in assisting the project. “He was agreeable to Vivian using all or some of their love letters from when they were courting, and after they married,” he said. “Theirs is a very interesting personal story, and Vivian’s the only one who can tell it.”
‘The usual creative process’
The agent said the collaboration between Sharpsteen and Distin is well underway. “They’ve been organizing Vivian’s papers, and Ann’s been talking to Vivian on a number of days ... It’s the usual creative process,” said Morrison, whose clients have included Robert Ludlum, whose novel “The Bourne Supremacy” is being made into a movie (Matt Damon is set to reprise his role from “The Bourne Identity”).
Morrison said he hopes to have a manuscript “by late summer 2004,” with publication late that year or early 2005.
Meantime, other tributes and remembrances have been emerging: The CMT (Country Music Television) cable channel will rebroadcast “Inside Fame: Johnny Cash,” a documentary Sharpsteen wrote and produced, from Nov. 15-17. The film, mostly an interview taped with Cash in December, at the singer’s winter home in Jamaica, contain some of his last public appearances.
And Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson and George Jones were among those paying their respects at a tribute concert Monday at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. Sharpsteen said the high emotion of that event was the reason Distin couldn’t speak for this story. ”(Monday) night was so emotional,” Sharpsteen said. “She’s just really grieving.”
Reuters contributed to this story.