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What It Takes: Johnny Cash

What It Takes: Johnny Cash
What It Takes: Johnny Cash
What It Takes: Johnny Cash
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00:00:02 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:00:08 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:00:14 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:00:19 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:00:32 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:00:35 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:00:40 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:00:53 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance. I'm Alice Winkler. Every episode of What It Takes features a revealing conversation with someone who has literally changed the world, whether it's Rosa Parks, Steve Jobs, Jonas Salk, Jane Goodall, or today's guest, Johnny Cash. Their stories are unique, but all of them are inspiring, and after all, it's the Academy of Achievement's mission to show you don't need to be a superhero to make a difference.

00:01:25 Listen to the wisdom in these interviews, and you'll learn what it takes. Here we go.


00:01:29 Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,

Why you never see bright colors on my back,

And why does my appearance

Seem to have a somber tone?

Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down.

00:01:55 ALICE WINKLER: Hardscrabble farmers, homeless drifters, and men behind bars — these are the people Johnny Cash wrote and sang about for 40-plus years. He lent his entirely original canyon of a voice to the lonesome and the lost, the dispossessed and the disillusioned. In 1993, Gail Eichenthal sat down to talk with Johnny Cash. It was ten years before his death.

00:02:20 JOHNNY CASH: The first time I knew what I wanted to do with my life was when I was about four years old. I was listening to an old Victrola playing a railroad song. The song was called Hobo Bill's Last Ride.


00:02:33 Hobo Bill, a railroad bum, was fighting for his life...

00:02:41 JOHNNY CASH: And I thought that was the most wonderful, amazing thing that I'd ever seen. That you could take this piece of wax, and music would come out of that box. From that day on, I wanted to sing on the radio.


00:02:55 Ho-bo Billy...

00:03:02 ALICE WINKLER: Johnny Cash’s musical dreams took root on a cotton farm in rural Arkansas during the darkest days of the Depression, but it wasn’t just Jimmy Rodgers or the other singers coming out of the family’s radio that inspired him.

00:03:15 JOHNNY CASH: I grew up in the ’40s, and I heard all these great speeches, like Winston Churchill. His most famous — or infamous — commencement exercise speech was, "Never, never, never, never, never give up." And then somebody else said, "Every day in every way I'm getting better and better." I didn't especially believe that about myself, but I said it every day, and I made myself believe it, and it worked.

00:03:43 But I never — I persevered. I never gave up my dream to, quote, sing on the radio, and that dream came true in 1955.

00:03:56 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Tell us how that dream came true. What — who gave you your first big break?

00:04:02 JOHNNY CASH: Sam Phillips at Sun Records. There was a label called Sun Records in Memphis that was pretty hot, with Elvis Presley and two or three locally well-known country acts, and some black blues and gospel singers, and when I got out of the Air Force, I went and knocked on that door and was turned away. I called back for an interview three or four times, was turned away, so one morning I found out what time the man went to work.

00:04:30 I went down with my guitar and sat on his steps until he got there, and when he got there, I introduced myself, and he said, "You're the one that's been calling." I said, "Yup." You know, I had to take the chance he was either going to let me come in or he was going to run me off, turn me down again, but evidently he woke up on the right side of the bed that morning. He said, "Come on in. Let's listen." So he did. He said, “Come back tomorrow and bring some musicians.”

00:04:59 So I went down to the garage where I worked, where my brother Roy worked, and met — and was introduced to two musicians down there. Brought them back at the studio, and the next day was our first session. We recorded and released the songs that were recorded the second day.


00:05:17 I keep a close watch on this heart of mine

I keep my eyes wide open all the time

I keep the ends out for the tie that binds

Because you're mine, I walk the line

00:05:40 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Did you ever sense back — sitting on Sam Phillip's doorstep, that you would one day be a household word?

00:05:48 JOHNNY CASH: No. No, I had no idea. Even when my first record was released, I — two or three days later I heard it played over a Shreveport, Louisiana radio station, and I thought, "That's too far away. That doesn't make any difference. That doesn't matter. You know, that's too far away from Memphis." It was a couple of months before I realized that the whole world was out there, available, you know?

00:06:14 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Did you have trouble dealing with success when it came?

00:06:20 JOHNNY CASH: Yeah.

00:06:21 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Can you talk about that a little bit?

00:06:21 JOHNNY CASH: I had a lot of trouble dealing with success. I think it would have — it was harder for me to handle than failure would have been. I don't know. Probably was. Yeah, I had a hard time dealing with it. I lived a simple life, and life on the road as an entertainer's anything but simple. Yeah, I had my ups and downs, as is well documented.

00:06:43 ALICE WINKLER: His ups and downs included drug abuse and alcoholism. Johnny Cash asked not to talk about those periods of his life during this interview with Gail Eichenthal. He was doing well, sitting next to his wife and musical partner, June Carter Cash, and he preferred to stay in the light, but what he was happy to talk about was how he learned to move beyond his mistakes, starting with a book he read when he was 12 years old about an Indian boy named Lone Bull.

00:07:12 JOHNNY CASH: Lone Bull tried to go out and kill a buffalo. He slipped out of the village against his father's wishes and went out. He was going to be a hero, so his family and the other people could have meat. The elders of the village knew about the buffalo herd out there. They knew it was there, and they were making plans to cut into the herd and cut off some buffalo and kill them, and have meat for the whole winter and into the next spring.

00:07:41 Lone Bull wanted to be a hero. He went out with his bow and arrow and killed a calf and ran the herd off. He dragged his calf home. His family was fed, but they were ostracized, and Lone Bull became a wanderer until he found a village that would take him in, and in that next village that he was taken in, he organized the buffalo hunt that winter, and they had more meat than this village had ever had before.

00:08:13 So, I learned from my mistakes. I think it's probably the best way, and it was a very painful way to learn, but you build on it. You build on failure. You use it as a stepping-stone. You don't close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.

00:08:36 You know, you analyze it as you're moving forward and never fall in the same trap twice, which I can't say that I haven't been guilty of doing, but my advice is don't — if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there. So, Lone Bull's philosophy was, “I'm kicked out of this village, but I will grow up, and I'll come into another one, and I will do what I set out to do.” And that was feed the people. So, I’m feeding my people right now.


00:09:09 From the hands it came down

From the side it came down

From the feet it came down

And ran to the ground

Between heaven and hell

A teardrop fell

In the deep crimson dew

The tree of life grew

And the blood gave life

To the branches of the tree

And the blood was the price

That set the captives free

And the numbers that came

Through the fire and the flood

Clung to the tree

And were redeemed by the blood

00:09:58 GAIL EICHENTHAL: As a songwriter, do you rely a lot on your instinct?

00:10:05 JOHNNY CASH: Songwriting is a very strange thing, so far as I'm concerned. It's not something that I can say, “Next Tuesday morning, I'm going to sit down and write songs.” I can't do that. Can't — no way. If I say, “I'm going to the country and take a walk in the woods next Tuesday,” then the probability is next Tuesday night I maybe can write a song, you know? Creative people have to be fed from the divine source. I do. I have to get fed. I have to get filled up in order to pour out. Really have to.

00:10:38 GAIL EICHENTHAL: What feeds you?

00:10:39 JOHNNY CASH: God and inspiring people. In my little world there in Northeast Arkansas on a cotton farm, it was my brother Jack. He was kind of my inspiration, but he was — and he was two years older than I, and he was killed at the age of 14. I always wanted to be like him, and throughout the year, he was a strong person. He was a Bible student.

00:11:07 He was in perfect shape physically. I always wanted to be like him, and when he died, my best friend was still my mother, and she always encouraged me to do — to sing. Matter of fact, she — we were very poor, and she took in washing from the schoolteachers, washed their clothes to make money to give me singing lessons, voice lessons. After about three lessons, the voice teacher said, "Don't take voice lessons. Do it your way." And she said, "You're a song stylist."

00:11:38 And from the age of 12, I didn’t forget that. That that was the way I had to do it because, you know, it was the way it was with me. I had to do it my way. I couldn’t reach those notes singing those great songs like a lot of those singers could, but I could do it my way, and — the way it felt good to me, and that's what music is all about, emotion. So —

00:12:01 GAIL EICHENTHAL: You didn’t mention a father. Was — what —

00:12:04 JOHNNY CASH: My father was a man of love. He always loved me to death. He — we worked hard in the fields, but my father never hit me, never — I don't ever remember a really cross, unkind word from my father. He was a good, strong man, provided for his family. That was his sole purpose in life when I was growing up.

00:12:25 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Was there a teacher that particularly inspired you? Did school mean something to — in your career?

00:12:04 JOHNNY CASH: Yeah. I graduated from high school in 1950 in a little town in Arkansas. Actually, it was the biggest, what they call, cooperative school in the state. For a small country town — there were 1,100 students in this school, and I graduated as the vice president of my class. I wasn't all that high scholastically because I was writing a lot of poems and stories and songs at the time that I should have been studying more.

00:13:01 But school was really important for me, and I was so disappointed in myself that I didn't make really good grades in math, and in all the other subjects I did very well, but it was — school was really important to me. My parents — my mother had, and father — I think they had an eighth grade education, which was adequate for what they did with their lives then, but they wanted me — and they drilled into me that I had to graduate from high school.

00:13:29 College was another hope that was almost unattainable for a cotton farm boy. There was no money for college, so I joined the Air Force. Korean War was breaking out, and I joined the Air Force. You know, I probably have the equivalent of college in the roads I've traveled since then, but it'd be great to go from being able to — I look back on it, and it would have been great to go from high school right into college to study music and literature.

00:14:01 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Going back to the beginning of your career and Sam Phillips, what do you think he saw in you that made him take that chance and go with you and cut a record? What was he attracted to?

00:14:21 JOHNNY CASH: I think Sam Phillips saw the originality in my difference. He heard something that was different. Not necessarily something that was good or exceptional — or even good — but different. You know, it's like a novelist writing far out things, you know? If it makes a point and makes sense, then people like to read that, you know? But if it gets off into left field and then goes over the edge, you lose it. The same with musical talent, I think.

00:14:55 If you can hold your listener, hold their attention, and be sure you know what you're doing, and know that you're communicating — you know, performance is communicating. You’ve got to communicate. If you’ve got a song you're singing from your gut, you want that audience to feel it in their gut, and you’ve got to make them think that you're one of them, sitting out there with them, too.

00:15:17 GAIL EICHENTHAL: How do you do that?

00:15:19 JOHNNY CASH: I don't know. I don't know how you do that. It just — I just know when I'm doing it, and I know if I'm not doing it, and after 38 years of experience, I pretty well know if it's going to work or not, usually.


00:15:31 I hear the train a-comin’

It's rollin’ round the bend

And I ain't seen the sunshine

Since I don't know when

I'm stuck in Folsom Prison

And time keeps draggin’ on

But that train keeps a-rollin’

On down to San Antone...

When I was just a baby

My mama told me, Son,

Always be a good boy,

Don't ever play with guns

But I shot a man in Reno

Just to watch him die

When I hear that whistle blowin’

I hang my head and cry...

00:16:18 ALICE WINKLER: That conversation with Johnny Cash was recorded in 1993. You can hear more from Johnny Cash at the Academy of Achievement’s website, There are so many tremendous interviews in the collection, with musicians and writers, scientists and entrepreneurs, world leaders and great thinkers. So when you need another dose of inspiration, come find us. This is What It Takes. I’m Alice Winkler.


00:16:43 I bet there's rich folks eatin’

In a fancy dining car

They're probably drinkin’ coffee

And smoking big cigars

Well I know I had it comin’

I know I can't be free

But those people keep a-movin’

And that's what tortures me...

00:17:12 ALICE WINKLER: Funding for What It Takes is made possible by the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation.

What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.