History in the Movies / By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D.


“Walk the Line,” / Johnny Cash Revealed

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

When Joaquin Phoenix utters those famous lines in the new film, “Walk the Line,” you believe him.

Phoenix accomplishes something similar to what Jamie Foxx did in his star-making turn last year as Ray Charles in “Ray.” He channels a singer whose distinctive style seems inimitable.

And he does it brilliantly. Phoenix’s performance enables the film to convincingly convey Johnny Cash—his look, his mannerisms, his voice.

But what about his history?

That’s a tougher question to answer. Partly because Cash himself was hard to pin down about what actually happened in his life. He contradicted himself on many occasions, giving numerous versions of key events and periods in his life.

Kris Kristofferson once said of Cash: “He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.”

Here’s my attempt to sort out the truth from the fiction in “Walk the Line.”

Q. Was Cash’s father really so tough on him?

A. Ray Cash was not a nice man, to put it mildly. An alcoholic, he was physically abusive to his family. He was a cold man, constantly belittling Johnny and his siblings. And perhaps worst of all, he openly blamed Johnny for the accidental death of his beloved brother, Jack, who died at 14 in an accident with a circular saw.

Johnny never spoke publicly against his father, but in his autobiography, written after his father’s death, he allowed a slight tinge of bitterness to color his account of him.

Q. In Cash’s first audition, his choice to perform gospel songs is challenged by the studio owner as insincere. Did that happen?

A. In the film, Sam Phillips challenges Cash to “sing something you believe in,” which leads Cash to abandon the gospel recordings he had prepared and launch into some of the painfully honest songs for which he would became famous.

The film’s version makes for dramatic storytelling. But it is just a story, not reality. Although Cash claimed at one point that he had sung only gospel in the audition, the studio’s records show that Cash’s group played ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ and other Cash-penned songs for Phillips, who was impressed by their unusual, ragged sound and signed them to a contract.

Q. Did Cash really tour with both Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis?

A. He did. All three were signed to Sun Records and toured together briefly in the Fifties. They were rivals, but became friends, probably because they had a lot in common.

All were Southern boys who had grown up in deeply religious households. All enjoyed the typical vices of musicians-alcohol, drugs, womanizing. But none of them ever stopped struggling with the contradictions these offered to their fundamentalist upbringing.

Q. Johnny Cash is most often called John in the film. Which did he prefer?

A. His immediate family called him J.R., but as an adult he was John to those who knew him best. Johnny was a stage name suggested by his first manager, who thought it sounded young and rebellious. Cash was afraid it would sound childish. He needn’t have worried.

Q. Was Cash really the bad boy this film implies?

A. Cash wasn’t shy about admitting his sinful side, and neither is the film. And it’s all true. Cash was an absentee father who cheated on his wife while touring, which was most of the time. He drank too much, and regularly trashed hotel rooms or concert venues while on tour. And he essentially abandoned his first wife to force her, a staunch Catholic, to seek a divorce.

But his most serious problem was his amphetamine addiction, which he didn’t kick until 1968. While under the drug’s influence, he missed recording sessions, showed up incoherent to concerts and pushed his body to the brink of destruction.

Q. Was his love for June Carter the reason he quit?

A. June Carter had been in a covert relationship with Cash for years, and she and her family, to whom Cash was close, had cajoled, consoled, and threatened Cash for years to give up the drugs, to no effect.

Finally, in 1968, Cash was ready to accept help. Why then? The film doesn’t say. And Cash himself gave differing explanations.

Certainly his love for June-who had sworn not to marry him until he was clean-helped. But maybe the best answer is that Cash had reached his lowest point. It was either kick the drugs or die.

Q. Did the final scene between June and Johnny really happen that way?

A. I don’t like to reveal spoilers, so I’ll just say-yup, it happened just like that. And wasn’t it sweet?

Q. What’s a good book for more information?

A. Try “The Man Called Cash” by Steve Turner.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. You can reach her through her Web site at www.stfrancis.edu/historyinthemovies.