The House That Cash Built 

John Carter Cash, the only son of one of America’s most famous couples, manages both his late parents legacy and a career of his own

John Carter Cash stops at the top step to explain why his busy recording studio sits in such an unusual location.
John Carter Cash walks up the side-entrance stairs leading into Cash Cabin Studio, a small, old-fashioned wooden structure situated in a patch of untouched woodland amid the booming housing developments of Hendersonville. The lanky, longhaired 36-year-old stops at the top step to explain why his busy recording studio sits in such an unusual location. His explanation proves that the prodigal son knows exactly where he stands. To his left, he points out the overgrown remnants of a dirt road where his father, Johnny Cash, and his mother, June Carter Cash, would drive between their sprawling family home on Old Hickory Lake and this small country structure. It sits on the quiet back portion of Sumner County acreage The Man In Black bought in 1968, right before he married June Carter. The ultra-modern, 13,800-square-foot main home was perched on a cliff overlooking the lake and would be home to the couple for their entire marriage. They built the country cabin, with less than 1,000 square feet, as a getaway in the woods. It’s modeled on the rural home in Poor Valley, Va., where June was born. “No one uses the road anymore,” the son explains matter-of-factly. “We put a fence up after we sold the house last year.” To his right, a new house is under construction, with pickup trucks raising dust and hard-hatted workers shouting to each other. John Carter is building the stone-and-wood home for his family—wife Laura Cash and their three children, 10-year-old Joseph, 4-year-old Anna Maybelle and 3-month-old Jack Ezra. Though large, the home is modest by country music royalty standards; it’d fit inconspicuously in any of the gated communities under development nearby. John Carter held onto this woodland property because of the cabin, which he began converting into a recording studio in 1999, the same year he helped his mother record her comeback album, Press On. But the location perfectly sums up his place in life as the only child born of the Cash-Carter marriage. John Carter now lives in the balance between what his parents left him and what he’s building on his own. On one side, his past remains ever-present and in need of daily tending. On the other side, his future rises, demanding more attention all the time. So here he stands, ready to start building a legacy of his own, yet in charge of making sure his parent’s legacy—in music, in image, in spirit—gets all the detailed care it deserves. That means he’ll interrupt a recording session to tell a big-name liquor company, once and for all, that they cannot license one of his father’s songs for a commercial. “John Carter has been given this incredibly heavy load to carry, and he carries it so well,” says Margie Hunt of Hunt Music Services, a former Sony Music senior marketing director who oversaw the historic reissues of the Johnny Cash catalog for many years. “You can’t imagine how immense a job it is. Everyone in the world wants a piece of the Cashes. Requests come in every day of the year. But John Carter handles it all with grace and serenity. It makes me proud for John and June to see that their creative lives have been put in such good hands.” John Carter, who has the towering height and broad shoulders of his father and the easy smile of his mother, lets out a laugh when he hears such praise. “It is a lot of work,” he admits. “I talk every day to someone about my parents.” And that’s the trickiness of his position. Barely three years gone—our interview is on May 15, the third anniversary of his mother’s death—Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash are still very present in their son’s life. Psychologically, that’s something he’s had to learn to reckon with. He’s the first to admit there was a time he wasn’t so good at handling the pressure of being the only son of one of America’s most famous couples. And that’s the trickiness of his position. Barely three years gone—our interview is on May 15, the third anniversary of his mother’s death—Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash are still very present in their son’s life. Psychologically, that’s something he’s had to learn to reckon with. He’s the first to admit there was a time he wasn’t so good at handling the pressure of being the only son of one of America’s most famous couples. “I’ve learned to maintain my own identity, even though I stay immersed in their lives,” he explains, leaning back in the comfortable office chair that sits in front of his studio’s production board. “That’s where I struggled for so long, especially in my 20s. For a long time it was a point of contention in my life. I wanted so bad to be in music, but how could I compete with what’s come before me? How could I deal with being compared to that?” Like many in his generation, and like many in his family, he turned to excessive partying and losing himself in acts of wild aimlessness. “For quite a while I was in a haze,” he says. “Addiction runs in my family like a current. It’s in our blood. Every one of us has been affected by addiction. For the most part, we’ve all been addicts, myself included. I saw my sister Rosie pass away from it. Others have come close.” There but for the grace of God, he intimates. He often found himself at the mouth of the cave, ready to find out how far into the darkness he could drop. He struggled for years to establish himself as a singer, songwriter and entertainer. But he’d also interrupt his progress to accompany his parents when they took their show on the road each year. He spent 15 years playing guitar and singing harmony in his father’s stage show. Off the road, he’d grow frustrated with his own lack of progress—and his lack of his own identity. And, of course, being who he was, he had no lack of access to friends and, well, cash. “I’d try to escape my life,” he says. “I looked at what I’d been given and at who I am as a burden, and I’d run from it as far as I could. I pushed away those things that should’ve given me the most comfort. It was all about me, and all about what I wanted and couldn’t have.” But, at some point, he always stopped himself. Then he’d come back home—to his family and to his religion. “Whenever I’d fall, I’d reach out,” he says, his quiet voice growing even fainter. “Whenever I’d hit bottom, I’d dig in and pray to God to help me up. It was about four months before my mother died that my life turned around, that I began to have a clarity and understanding that I hadn’t before. I’ve become a more consistent person. I’m a little more predictable now, and that’s a good thing.” He hints at receiving organized assistance, but the code of recovery keeps him from openly discussing how he came to sobriety and how he maintains it. “All I can say is something changed within me because of something bigger than me,” he continues. “I have to have faith. I have to wake up each day and acknowledge my faith and say that I’m glad to be here and glad to be who I am.” Indeed, he believes finding his faith is the reason he endured the back-to-back deaths of his mother, his father and his sister, all of whom died within six months of each other in 2003. “I don’t know that I could have gone through all of that if I hadn’t been where I am spiritually and if I didn’t have my wife Laura with me,” he says. “I had to learn that the most precious blessings in life aren’t things like power and wealth and fame and material stuff. It’s a smile from a child. It’s a tender word. It’s having people around you who love you. It’s having good health and appreciating every day you have.” The young Cash’s inner strength began to emerge as he attended funeral after funeral. Then came meeting after meeting to discuss wills, legal obligations, estate affairs and family business complicated by the scores of close-knit adult offspring who share the blood of his mother and father. “He’s come a long way from the days when he’d walk around Lower Broad with an iguana on his shoulder,” says an amused Marty Stuart, who was once married to John Carter’s half-sister Cindy Cash and who traveled with John Carter for years as the guitar player in Johnny Cash’s band. “Man, I could not be prouder of anybody than I am of John Carter. To go through what he endured in a year’s time, and then have the entire circus dumped on his shoulders, that would not be an easy place for anybody to be. But you know what? He’s truly become his father’s son. He’s at peace with himself and what he has to do.” For Stuart, John Carter became a source of friendship and strength to lean on when he faced his own problems with backsliding into alcohol and drugs. “He was a beacon I turned to,” Stuart says. “He gave me words of encouragement when I most needed them.” John Carter drew on every ounce of that strength while sorting through the estate his parents left him. “Just the physical possessions they’d accumulated were overwhelming,” he says, noting that his mother was a voracious collector who had to rent extra storage units to hold all the antiques, specialty items and career memorabilia she and her husband gathered over their lifetime. “It took two years just to go through everything, catalog it and clean up the houses. There was no way the family could split it all up, there was just too much of everything. And then there were the taxes, too. So a large portion of what they owned had to go.” In a Sotheby’s auction, the Cash-Carter family sold more than 800 items and raised more than $4 million, according to press reports. “What became important to me to keep were things like my father’s love letters to my mother,” he says. “I wanted to hold onto the words—even more than the instruments and the clothes, although we kept some of those too. But letters or hand-written songs were more important to me than the extra black suits in the closet.” Carter also inherited his father’s music publishing company and recording catalog, which means overseeing the nonstop re-packaging of previously released songs and, perhaps more importantly, the music that’s never been released publicly. Those works include two major new albums. Personal File, a two-CD collection of songs Johnny Cash recorded in 1973 with just his voice and guitar, came out May 23. And, on July 4 comes American V: A Hundred Highways, featuring the last recordings that Cash made with producer Rick Rubin, including those he cut during a furious period of music-making after his wife’s death. “Johnny Cash is bigger now than he ever was,” John Carter says bluntly. “June is too. But that perpetuity is something they got rolling on their own. They were both already involved in taking their love story to film. They had worked with the director, met with actors, read the scripts. They had it set up to hand it over to me. So I continued their work. It wasn’t to further my vision of their lives, but to make sure their vision of their lives got shared appropriately. Hopefully that’s what happened.” When he talks about the award-winning film Walk the Line, he does so carefully. More than anyone, he’s aware of the raw nerve it struck within his family, especially the four daughters of Vivian and Johnny Cash, who disliked how their mother, their father’s first wife, was portrayed in the movie. Others close to his father picked at other aspects of the film, feeling it misrepresented or downplayed important parts of his story. “Walk the Line is the story of their love affair,” John Carter explains. “That was what they wanted the movie to be about. If you look for anything else, you’ll be disappointed. If you looked for an accurate representation of his life with Vivian, then the film would be lacking. If you look for my father’s relationship with God, there may be holes in it. But if you look for what they wanted—a story about a lasting love affair—then it tells that beautifully.” More than at any other time during this interview, it’s on this point that John Carter treads the most familiar ground. He’s repeated these lines often. But he shows no bitterness and whispers no off-the-record gripes, not toward any person and not toward the question itself. As others have said, it’s during the most trying or most exasperating moments that he shows the most fortitude. By now he’s leaning forward, emphasizing his words, getting a little worked up. So he catches himself, dropping back in the chair and taking a deep breath. “You know, I answer questions like this all the time,” he says. “I’ve got to deal with my feelings for my parents every day. I’ve got to go through my grief over missing them every day.” “I remind myself that who my father was, John R. Cash the man, and the woman my mother was are wholly different people from Johnny and June Carter Cash. My parents live on in my heart, but they’ve gone on. But, as performers, Johnny and June Cash are very much alive. It’s their work and their image I now oversee, and I have to make sure it’s represented correctly and with dignity. I have to see it as that. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do this. I wouldn’t be able to respond to personal questions about them on a daily basis if I didn’t see it like that.” By now he’s leaning forward, emphasizing his words, getting a little worked up. So he catches himself, dropping back in the chair and taking a deep breath. “You know, I answer questions like this all the time,” he says. “I’ve got to deal with my feelings for my parents every day. I’ve got to go through my grief over missing them every day.” He laughs when he recalls some conversations he’s had. “People will say to me, ‘I loved your dad’s Bitter Tears album,’ ” he says of his father’s concept album about Native Americans and their treatment by the U.S. government. “They’ll say, ‘It’s hard to believe he didn’t have Indian blood in him!’ Or they’ll say they love ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and say they can’t believe he didn’t actually spend time in a federal prison…. So I go straight into these conversations with people that deal with my parents on the most intimate levels of their lives. People feel they know them. That used to be so daunting to me. It angered me, to be honest. But I’ve come to think it’s pretty cool. It’s the way my parents lived their lives; they were open books.” As cool as it may be, and as willingly as he’s taken on his role as gatekeeper of the family legacy, John Carter these days considers himself a record producer first and foremost. It’s where he is most involved in making new music instead of managing the work of his parents. He first learned the job of recording and engineering to make his own rock records in the mid-’90s. He worked with two other local rock bands at the cabin studio and produced his father’s contribution to the Grammy-winning soundtrack for Robert Duvall’s film, The Apostle. But he considers his work on his mother’s landmark Press On album as the point when he decided to concentrate on producing rather than making his own music. “I no longer have any desire to be a star or anything that goes along with that,” he says. “I experienced the limelight from the moment I could open my eyes. They brought me on national television when I was an infant. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t around a crowd or a stage growing up. I traveled on the road for 20 years with my father. I love music, and I love to work in the studio. But I don’t have any desire to go back out on the road again.” For years, he helped his father create demos and, in some cases, final recordings for the third and fourth installments of the American Recordings series. He also produced an alternative-country band from San Diego called, more than a little ironically, The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash. More recently, he’s produced Marty Stuart’s acclaimed Badlands album; a Carter Family tribute record, The Unbroken Circle; and a collection of current artists singing gospel standards, Voices of the Spirit: The Gospel of the South, which featured Mavis Staples, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Vince Gill, Del and Ronnie McCoury, Earl and Randy Scruggs, Marty Stuart, Connie Smith and others. He also produced the young family gospel trio, The Peasall Sisters. He’s currently at work on albums by his half-sister Carlene Carter (“she’s doing so well, she’s a miracle”) and by cowboy country artists Wiley & the Wild West. His upcoming projects include new albums by Ralph Stanley and Billy Joe Shaver as well as a June Carter Cash tribute album. “Yeah, it’s a lot,” he says. “But, you know, I love everything I’m doing.” Perhaps too obviously, he’s reminded that it wasn’t always this way. “Well, I had to find out who I was and what was important to me,” he says. “I found that it was my faith in God, my family and my work. Then I had to ask, ‘What is your work?’ Or, maybe better, ‘What is your joy?’ And that joy is doing my production work and keeping my parents legacy alive as best I can. That’s who I am, that’s what I want to do.” With that, the phone rings. It’s a national music magazine asking questions about the Personal File album. John Carter politely covers the receiver and takes a second to say goodbye. He’s got other questions—or more of the same questions—to answer now.


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