Wanted Man

Johnny Cash may just be a legend, but he's never sounded better

It was due in stores by July, but a lifetime of memories does not come easily to a man whose first hit came 41 years ago, when he was a member of a Sun Records roster that included Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and a boy named Elvis. So the world will have to wait a few more months, likely until January, for Johnny Cash to put his memories to tape recorder, for a writer to take those recordings and transcribe them on paper and for Harper San Francisco to take that paper and turn it into a book. But a few months, after all, are nothing in the grand scheme of Johnny Cash's life -- the blink of a blink of an eye, really, especially when there are more important things to be concerned with than telling the same old stories one more time.

Cash didn't even want to write his life story. He's already got the boxed sets and the surgeries to remind him of his age and mortality, and he's already got the one book -- 1975's Man in Black, published by a religious publishing house around the time Cash got off the pills and got hooked on Jesus -- to explain a life lived well and lived hard. Plus, Cash shrugs, he gets tired pretty easily these days, those 65 years (Lord, is that all?) catching up with him; better he spends a day fishing than remembering all over again those Million Dollar Quartet sessions or the day he wrote "Folsom Prison Blues" or the time he got busted in El Paso for smuggling Dexedrine over the border.

"Man in Black was written for Zondervan -- a Bible publisher, a religious publisher -- and so many companies wanted me to write a book that would cover the secular rather than the spiritual side of my life," Cash says from his Nashville-based offices, the House of Cash. "I just never really have wanted to do another book, and I was just determined that I wasn't going to until this past year. Two or three big companies were really interested, and somebody finally made an offer I guess I couldn't refuse. On top of that, Billy Graham called me up out of the clear blue sky and said, 'I wish you would write a book.' And I said, 'What would you want me to write about?' And he said, 'About your life and experiences.' He said, 'You should do it now, while you've got the energy to do it, while you feel like doin' it.'

"And I'm enjoyin' some of it. Some of it's fun, but some of it's painful. It's painful to go into the amphetamine years, when there was so much damage to my psyche and my spirit and the people around me. It's painful remembering that all over again, dragging that back through. But there's a lot of funny things and interesting things that have happened that were definitely not covered in Man in Black, and I'm enjoyin' writin' 'em.

"But the book comes at a time when I'm really havin' trouble squeezin' in the time for it. It's been hard to find time for everything I want to do and still have a little time left over for me -- which I made my first priority. I made an agreement with my God and my wife and myself that I would take care of myself first and that all the rest would follow. It's hard to find time to take a week or two off to go fishin' or whatever when there's so much that people want from ya."

Not that Cash is complaining. Not at all. He is in fact grateful to be so busy, to find his time limited by the demands of others. Just a few years ago, the man who once wrote "Wanted Man" with Bob Dylan was anything but wanted. Instead, he was merely another country music legend who suited up for the old-timer games, a museum display who performed in front of the fanatics who only wanted to hear "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "A Boy Named Sue" and "Folsom Prison Blues" for the thousandth time. With wife June Carter and the Carter Family behind him, Cash would hit the road and play the dinner theaters and the honky-tonk theme parks. He'd walk through the hits and moan through the misses, wrap himself in Old Glory and sing to Jesus Christ; he was doing his part for God and country.

Somewhere along the way, Cash -- like Willie Nelson, George Jones, Waylon Jennings and so many other country greats -- slipped from superstar status to be-come a cult icon. Ignored by age-discriminatory country radio, he was an exile in his homeland, turned into an oldies act even after proving he's capable of producing new work that rivals any old favorite.

For most people, Cash simply disappeared during the 1980s. His career was sucked into a black hole known as Mercury/Polygram, where Cash was signed in 1986 after his relationship with Columbia Records had run its 27-year-long course. Though he released some of the finest records of his career during his stint on Mercury/Polygram, including Water from the Wells of Home (which featured the likes of Paul McCartney, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and the Everly Brothers) and Mystery of Life (which contained a classic performance of "Wanted Man"), Cash had begun to feel like an old man trapped inside history books. He was the outlaw who couldn't get arrested.

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