The Man In Black Goes To The County Fair

Feb 23, 2013
Originally published on February 23, 2013 9:26 pm

I started out in radio more than 30 years ago. My first job right out of college was as a country-western DJ at WVMO, my hometown radio station in Monroe, Mich.

I have many boxes of cassette tapes stashed in my basement, including one that has a recording from the Monroe County Fair in the summer of 1981. I remember standing there with my microphone. To my right were the grandstands where they do the demolition derby. To my left was this big, silver tour bus. I was about to meet one of my musical heroes: Johnny Cash.

When I found out Johnny Cash was coming to the county fair, I tried to line up an interview, but I didn't receive any response. I tried again. Nothing. Finally, a guy who worked at the fair said, "If you stand here at this railing, his tour bus is there, the stage is there. Maybe as he walks past, he'll stop and talk to you." And he did.

I asked him a few questions about his new album, The Baron. But I arrived at the fair that day not knowing if he'd stop to talk to us, so I didn't have a big list of questions ready. He kept talking and he kept standing there, even though I kept expecting him to walk away. So, after a while, I raised what I didn't realize at the time was kind of a sore spot: Country music was becoming more pop, less pure country.

"It's really nothing new," Cash said. "I did that 24 years ago with 'I Walk the Line.' It seems as if the record companies are trying for a 'crossover hit.' That's not what country music is all about to me. Generally, when I'm in charge of the production of my records, I try to record the best Johnny Cash song I can find and do it in a way that's comfortable for me. Hopefully the people will like it. Usually, they're unadorned and not overproduced."

Five, six, seven minutes passed and I was out of questions. So I asked him, "How'd you get to be The Man in Black?" I cringe a little bit when I hear myself ask that question, but you've got to love his answer.

"For one reason, it's a little more slimming," Cash said. "I wrote a song called 'Man in Black' in about 1970. In the song, you see where I pointed out some of the problems and the ills that we have in this country. But I point to myself as being one of those people responsible for correcting some of those problems and unfortunate things that happen to people here."

This was not a good point in Johnny Cash's life. The new album that I asked him about flopped, and he couldn't really get on country radio anymore. "Folsom Prison Blues" had been 12 years earlier and it was another 12 or 13 years before he would have that late-career comeback. But on that day, he was way nicer to me than he had any reason to be. I was just this kid wearing a plaid shirt and a corduroy vest from some local radio station that he'd never heard of, but he took the time to answer all of my questions, even the stupid ones. I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but that is what I love about this interview all these years later.

Eventually, he had to wrap it up and head to the stage because he had a show to do. But just before he did that, I ceased being this accidental journalist and I let myself be a fan. I brought the album sleeve from one of his recent LPs with me and I asked him if he'd sign it. I still have that signature.

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Transcript

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Now, a radio memory and a bit of nostalgia. I have been in radio, now, for more than 30 years. My very first job right out of college, I was a country-western disc jockey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Hey, thank you, Mr. Cowboy, but here comes the sun...

GONYEA: Bobcat Friendly Ford time, it's 15 before 10 o'clock. Wayne, you're back from the fair.

WAYNE: Yes, I am.

GONYEA: Did you ride the Zipper?

WAYNE: No, we had power failure out there.

GONYEA: That's what I heard...

I worked at the radio station in Monroe, Michigan. That's my hometown; mostly rural, pretty sleepy, located halfway between Detroit and Toledo. And in August of 1981, I was at the county fair. It was a Saturday night, and I remember standing there with my tape recorder and my microphone...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GONYEA: One, two, three - that's working.

...not too far from the Midway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GONYEA: ...pack a blank tape...

To my right, the grandstands, where they do the demolition derby; to my left is this big, silver tour bus. And I am about to meet one of my musical heroes.]

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GONYEA: OK, getting ready to do the Johnny Cash press conference.

That's right - Johnny Cash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GONYEA: And here's Johnny. How you doing, Johnny?

JOHNNY CASH: Hi, how you doing?

GONYEA: Welcome to Monroe.

CASH: Thank you.

GONYEA: I'm from WBMO, the radio station here in town.

CASH: Mm-hmm.

GONYEA: Glad to have you here.

CASH: Thank you. Nice to be here.

GONYEA: Just some background here - when I found out Johnny Cash was coming to the county fair, I tried to line up an interview - no response. Tried again - nothing. Finally, a guy who worked at the fair said, if you stand here at this railing, his tour bus is there; the stage is there. Maybe as he walks past, he'll stop and talk to you. He did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GONYEA: Do you tour as much as you used to, these days? Do you still get the thrill of being on the road...

CASH: Yeah.

GONYEA: ...as when you were younger?

CASH: Yeah, I still travel as much as I ever did. We're doing about 120 concerts this year.

GONYEA: How about - can you tell us a little bit about the new album, "The Baron"? Is it traditional Johnny Cash, or are you breaking any new ground there?

CASH: A big part of it's traditional. Of course, the title song was the reason for the album, "The Baron," which was a fairly big seller for us. Not a number one record, but Rosanne Cash wouldn't let me in the number one spot.

GONYEA: (LAUGHTER)

CASH: But a big part of it is traditional, yes.

GONYEA: You mentioned Rosanne. You pretty pleased with the way things are going for her these days?

CASH: I'm very pleased with her. I'm very happy for her.

GONYEA: On the new album, you didn't write any of the songs. Do you prefer to write your own material, or do you...

CASH: A good song is a good song. I had several songs that I wrote and sang for the producer. And we recorded two or three of them. But as it turned out, mine weren't in it.

GONYEA: Do you have a favorite song that you've recorded?

CASH: "I Walk the Line."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WALK THE LINE")

CASH: (Singing) 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.

GONYEA: Now, remember, I arrived at the fair that day not knowing if he'd stop to talk to us, so I didn't have this big list of questions ready. And he kept talking and he stood there, even though I kept expecting him to walk away. So after a while, I raised what I didn't realize at the time, but was kind of a sore spot. Country music was becoming more pop, less pure country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GONYEA: These days, a lot of country stars are starting to cross over into the national charts and have national hits.

CASH: As you say, it seems that the record companies are trying for a "crossover," quote, hit. That's not what country music is all about, to me. Generally, when I'm in charge of the production of my records, I try to record the best Johnny Cash song I can find, and do it in a way that's comfortable for me. And hopefully, the people will like it. And usually, they're unadorned and not overproduced...

GONYEA: Well, now, five, six, seven minutes have passed. And I am out of questions. So I ask him:

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GONYEA: How'd you get to be "The Man in Black"?

I cringe a little bit when I hear that question, but you've got to love his answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CASH: For one reason, it's a little more slimming, and...

GONYEA: (LAUGHTER)

CASH: (LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: OK, there was a little bit more to his answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CASH: I wrote a song called "Man in Black" about 1970. I don't know, in the song, you see where I pointed up some of the problems and the ills that we have in this country. But I point to myself as being one of those people responsible for correcting some of those problems and unfortunate things that happen to people here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN IN BLACK")

CASH: (Singing) I wear it for the sick and lonely old, for the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold. I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could've been. Each week we lose a hundred fine young men...

GONYEA: Here's what I like about this interview, all these years later. I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but this was not a good point in Johnny Cash's life. That new album I asked him about? It flopped. He couldn't really get on country radio anymore. "Folsom Prison" had been 12 years earlier. It was another 12, 13 years before he would have that late-career comeback.

But on that day, he was way nicer to me than he had any reason to be. I was just this kid, you know, wearing a plaid shirt with a corduroy vest, from some local radio station that he'd never heard of; but he took the time to answer all of my questions. Eventually, he had to wrap it up and head to the stage - he had a show to do. But just before he did that, I ceased being this accidental journalist, and I let myself be a fan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CASH: I'm on stage.

GONYEA: Can I get you to sign this?

I brought with me the album sleeve from one of his recent LPs. I asked him if he'd sign it. I still have that signature.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CASH: Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.

(APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLSOM PRISON BLUES")

CASH: (Singing) I hear the train a'coming, it's rolling 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 dragging on...

GONYEA: You can see that autograph, and revisit our coverage of "The Man in Black" over the years, at npr.org/music. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is back next week. I'm Don Gonyea.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLSOM PRISON BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.