I met Johnny Cash in 1978 when I was writing a book about public people and their private challenges. After seven months of letters and calling his secretary, I finally got an interview with him. It took place on a sweltering August night at Wolf Trap Farm Park outside Washington, where flies battled each other for the privilege of biting stagehands. I overheard a conversation between two of those stagehands. One spoke of Cash as being a "man of God." He did not mean it as a compliment. They laughed.
Through the door that led to the stage strode the man in black. "Who are you? Do we have an appointment?" I explained that we did and gave the name of his secretary who set it up. He took my large hand in his much larger hand. Cash looked every bit his 46 years, but it was a beautiful 46. Later onstage he broke up the audience: "A lot of people in the business as long as I've been say they still feel like they're 25. I don't. I feel like I'm 46."
Typical Cash: honest, unpretentious, a man comfortable with anyone, from the powerful to the incarcerated. He had a face not to be looked at so much as to be studied. Like rings tell the age of a tree, each line on his face was part of a life story.
Cash hid little. He spoke openly about his wrestling matches with temptation. Some he'd won, others lost. And he spoke unashamedly about the faith those stagehands mocked. He told me of his daily commitment based on Psalm 19:14: "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer."
He said when he was "faced with temptations of various kinds, whether it be a 200-calorie soft drink or something else beautiful, I try to remember to recite that scripture and keep it implanted in my heart."
Did he and his wife, June (who died last May), ever fight? "We don't fight. If we have a disagreement, we decide whether the thing we're disagreeing about is worth the trouble. If not, we drop it, each with his or her own opinion, but respecting each other . We don't yell . our voices have not been raised at each other in our home."
Cash told me he intensely disliked public adulation and that while he enjoyed people having fun when he entertained, adulation "embarrasses me . no man should ever feel worthy of that kind of adulation. On stage, it's part of what I do, but I'm talking about the real me when I'm off stage. Adulation (there) always bothers me."
Cash revealed that he used to pray that God would give him a hit gospel song so he could better share his faith with others. "God gave me 'A Boy Named Sue,'" he said, laughing. "I kept praying for a hit gospel song, and He gave me 'Folsom Prison Blues.' I kept praying for a hit gospel song, and He gave me 'Ring of Fire.' And then 'Ballad of a Teenage Queen.' Those records were like a beacon. They attracted a lot of people." But the fame that came from those hits, he declared, gave him an entree to many people with whom he could share his faith.
Toward the end of our interview, I asked if he could be anyone in the world for one day, who would it be. He pondered, then clarified, "Just for one day, right?"
"Yes, one day."
"I know a 78-year-old man named Hoy Jones, who's a retired farmer. He does nothing but sit on his front porch and wave at people. I'd like to do that. I'd like to be Hoy Jones one day. Who was it that said, 'Let me live in a house beside the road and be a friend to man'? Well, that's what I'd like to do if I only had one day. I'd take it."
The answer to my final question from a man who was one of the greatest music stars in history tells you something about the real Johnny Cash: "One hundred years from now, how would you like to be remembered?"
"I'd like to be remembered as a good daddy."
Then he got up, shook my hand again, thanked me and was gone.