February 1997
By Al Weisel
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo Editor Jennifer Crandall

The man in black sees the light on “Unchained”.

When Johnny Cash pulls up to the door of his log cabin on his 50‑acre compound in Hendersonville, Tenn., he's not driving what you might expect. It turns out his favorite vehicle is a safari van with leaves painted garishly on every surface. When he bought this mobile rain forest from a French production of The Jungle Book, his family's reaction was: "You're not going to drive that thing, are you? " But Cash has always done things his own way. In his younger days, Cash was ostracized from Nashville after he smashed stage lights during a concert at the Grand Ole Opry, had run‑ins with the law over his drug use and accidentally started a forest fire. Judging by his new album, Unchained, the 64‑year‑old country legend still doesn't conform to the Nashville way of doing things. With covers of songs by alternative rockers Beck and Soundgarden, and with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as its backup band, Unchained will have a new generation walking the line with the Man in Black.

This is quite a spread you have here.

There's 21 deer and a llama and a couple of peacocks. The llama's name is Andy. He's from the Andes Mountains. Andy'll spit on you. He spits a long way‑ about 20 feet.

Great. So, how did you end up covering Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage"?

At first I said, "That's not my kind of song." [Producer] Rick Rubin said," Listen to the lyrics. If we can get an arrangement you're comfortable with, would you try it?" I said, "I'll try anything, but I don't think I'll ever do this song." I heard the arrangement and it felt so comfortable that it's one of my favorite songs.

Why do you think younger musicians connect with your music?

Maybe it's my rockabilly roots. It sometimes sur­prises me. It makes me feel good. Sometimes it feels like the '60s or the '5Os all over again‑the excitement of the young people when I do a show. When they pour it on me, I pour it right back at them.

How did you meet Beck?

He opened a show for me. At first I said, "Here's the greatest hillbilly singer I ever heard." He was singing those Appalachian mountain songs, real hard‑core country things. Then he sang "Rowboat." I loved that. I could relate to that from trouble I've had with women over the years.

Have you always felt like an outsider in Nashville?

I always have felt on the outskirts of Nashville physically, spiritually and emotionally. I never did totally conform.

Do you think country music has gotten too slicked up?

Nashville has always had the problem of trying to relate to people in New York who wear cowboy boots.

Speaking of clothing, do you have anything in your wardrobe that's not black?

If you open my closet door, it's dark in there. I got denim I wear sometimes. You won't find any yellows or greens.

Why did you start wearing black?

Our first concert was in a church, and we talked about what we had to wear that was alike. We all had black shirts, so we wore black shirts. We went over well that night, so I've leaned toward black ever since.

How did you feel when your stepdaughter Carlene Carter said she was going to "put the `c‑‑‑' back in country"?

I didn't pat her on the back and say, "I'm proud of you, honey; that was a beautiful line." But I wasn't surprised.

Do you think you'll make it to heaven?

Yeah, I do.

What do you think God will say when you get up there?

He'll say, "Welcome in, my good and faithful servant. You've been faithful in a few things."

What kind of music do you think they'll have there?

I don't think there'll be any banjos.

Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers plays bass on "Spiritual. " What was it like to work with him?

Flea has always been a spiritual per­son around me. Very kind. A gentleman. I'm also friends with [Chili Peppers lead singer] Anthony Kiedis, who came to my house in [Montego Bay] Jamaica last year.

Your house in Jamaica was robbed in 1981. What happened that night?

We were sitting down to Christmas dinner, and suddenly three robbers came in ‑ one with a gun, one with a knife and one with a hatchet‑ and told us to hit the floor. As it turns out, all three of those men are dead now. They were put in prison. I don't know how they died. It's not easy for a convict to stay alive long in Jamaica. We were terrorized for three hours. They searched the house and locked us down in the cellar. I took a two‑by-four after they left and broke the door down. But the police caught them. I really wasn't scared. Except, I was uneasy when the one with the gun held it on my son. I guess I was scared, but I couldn't let myself show it.

Have you ever been afraid you were going to die?

When I had bypass surgery in '87, I got double pneumonia and was on life support. I felt myself slipping, and I heard the doctor say so, and then I saw that light in a tunnel that you've heard about. A light that's more than a light: the source of all light, the essence of light. It was the most wonderful feeling I ever had in my life. The next thing l do is open my eyes and there are these doctors around me. I was so upset that they didn't let me die, because it was so peaceful and beautiful. I cried because I was so mad about it.