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VOL. 36 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 27, 2012

Cash Business

Man in Black’s brand stronger than ever thanks to strategy he laid out before his 2003 death

By Tim Ghianni

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Pride flavors John Carter Cash’s voice when talking about the giant shadow his father continues to cast – commercially and culturally – almost nine years after his death and in the year in which he would have turned 80.

“Dad was the ultimate image of cool,” says John Carter, the only offspring from the marriage of John R. and June Carter Cash. That love story, of course, was told on the big screen in Walk the Line, the 2005 biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix as Cash and Nashville’s Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon as the loving woman who helped him chase away his personal demons.

The younger Cash gives due credit to the film – casting and story were approved by his parents before their deaths and for which he stepped in as executive producer – for playing a part in the spreading of the gospel of Cash and the post-mortem career that continues as surely as the train that ran down the tracks by Folsom Prison.

“It wasn’t the film. It isn’t me. It wasn’t the estate. It’s him. He’s the one who did it. He’s the one that got this going,” John Carter says.

There’s truth there: In a very real way, John R. Cash guides his career long after being buried beside his wife and at Hendersonville Memory Gardens.

“My dad started something in motion within his lifetime, with integrity, heart, purpose and morality in his decision-making in the way he ran his business,” the younger Cash says.

That business? Being Johnny Cash. While the younger man can’t fill that role, he can make sure – with the aid of Lou Robin – the name continues to mean not just something, but a great deal.

Robin, friend, confidante and business manager for Cash during the good and bad times, notes The Man in Black was very specific about the direction his career would go and the decisions that would be made after he was gone.

By the late singer’s design, Robin’s role remains pretty much the same as it was when Cash was alive: He manages business affairs and makes sure the name, image and legacy are protected. Instead of consulting with his beloved friend – and there remains that strong emotional tie – he works with the son.

No one other than those involved really knows the value of the Cash Trust. And they’re not talking. Some sources, however, say Cash was worth more than $100 million when he died, and the value has risen to more than $300 million.

Cash disciple Marty Stuart, a former son-in-law, sideman and producer of Cash, testifies his late mentor remains involved in keeping the “business of Johnny Cash” on the right track.

“He had a lot of hand in designing it this way,” Stuart says.

He says Cash “understood in his lifetime … the post-life business” and plotted accordingly.

Even the video for Trent Reznor’s Hurt – with heart-wrenching imagery of an old man battered by life – was part of this business plan, Stuart says. The video, of course, succeeded in luring a new generation of fans.

Viewed perhaps as a farewell statement, the video was done and timed with purpose, Stuart explains, admitting the first time he saw the video “it puddled me up” with emotion. He had his tour bus driver pull off the road. He called Cash to ask what he was doing.

“He knew it would apply. He was effective,” Stuart says. “It was a special piece of business.”

The estate itself was set up as a special piece of business by Cash in the months leading to his death. And John Carter Cash, with Robin’s advice, is plenty busy in his dad’s four-score birthday year tending to the enterprise.

In addition to providing “new” music – virgin from the vaults – for fans to hear, the estate also is cooperating with Bill Miller, an old Cash chum, in establishing a new Johnny Cash Museum in downtown Nashville.

The estate also is offering support to tiny Dyess, Ark., in its efforts to restore Cash’s boyhood home, not just as a tribute to the man but as a way to bring tourists to the suffering little cotton town that was founded as a Depression-era agrarian colony.

“It’s the only future we’ve got,” says Dyess Mayor Larry Sims, defining the hoped-for result of the Arkansas State University-driven Johnny Cash Boyhood Home Restoration Project, which also will showcase the Dyess Colony. The whole Cash family and friends, musical or otherwise, have enlisted for fund-raising concerts and support.

John Carter Cash – author, musician, producer, husband, father and son – admits keeping the “business of Johnny Cash” thriving is a mission of love, as well as a consuming job.

“It is a pretty full-time job to handle the estate,” he says, relaxing briefly in his Hendersonville home with wife Laura, also an acclaimed musician.

“I have to give credit to my wife,” John Carter says. In fact, it’s Laura who has to answer the question as to what is John Carter Cash’s title when it comes to handling his pop’s dealings.

“I’m president of the House of Cash,” he says, after she reminds him. “I guess that’s my only title. And Laura is my top adviser.”

The 42-year-old says his role in the estate and the handling of the Johnny Cash legacy was set in motion by his father, who did his best to put in order the family business during his protracted, downhill battle with health woes.

Johnny Cash with longtime -- and current -- manager Lou Robin.

A part of it – like the Hurt video and the late-in-life, profoundly stark, unadorned American Recordings he did with producer Rick Rubin – was simply John R. Cash protecting and preserving the Cash image and even expanding the international legacy to keep his music alive for future generations to savor.

“He was a bigger-than-life character,” says Stuart, Cash’s longtime friend and protégé. “He’s our new Buffalo Bill. You can’t take your eye off the fact that he was a master showman. That’s a part of John’s deal.”

Of course it’s not just image. It’s the product, a wildly diverse body of work spanning the carnal to the Christian, the sanctified to the damned, that keeps Cash in the forefront, Stuart says.

“He made timeless projects that will always apply,” he says. “The music he made is a part of the American vernacular.”

John Carter Cash is more than aware of the image his dad created as a performer and of how different that image was from the man who liked nothing better than casting a line with his son off the dock outside the house on Old Hickory Lake.

“There was a separation there for him: of the father, the man, the husband and the business of Johnny Cash. I have to separate the man in my father from the business of Johnny Cash.

“My heart has always been in it because there is a momentum and perpetual motion in place,” he says. “My heart is to try to make decisions based on how Dad would have done things.”

Robin continues in his life’s crusade of advising career steps for his long-deceased friend, helping assure that the business continues in the way John R. outlined.

Robin points to the stability of the Cash camp. In addition to Robin, other members of the team – from the estate trustee to lawyers – have continued on in the years since the singer died.

Of course, Robin now advises the son he knew back when he rode in a baby seat while his mom and dad were touring.

On the day of this interview he is considering artwork for a new Cash T-shirt, just one of his responsibilities as “manager of business affairs for the John R. Cash Revocable Trust.”

That role was decided by Cash and his wife in the latter stages of their lives. June Carter preceded her husband in death by four months in 2003.

“They set up their wills and the trust and whatever the legalities were that were logical to look after the children,” says Robin, who won’t confirm his age other than to admit to “dinosaur” status.

About half of that life has been spent working with Cash, in life and in death. He began promoting his concerts in 1969 and took over as manager in 1973.

“We became close friends,” Robin recalls. “We were on the road together 125 days a year. When he had problems, I helped as everyone did in the family, to get him over that hump.

“He trusted us because we were completely honest. Nobody had to worry about getting paid or getting paid properly. I watched over his income from these various projects in which he had me involved. I dealt with the record companies. I dealt with the merchandise people.”

Robin retains those roles, at the request of his late friend and the direction of John Carter Cash.

“As I said to John before he passed away: ‘If you want me to continue on as I have, looking after the various business matters, I will.’

“He said ‘Why don’t you just put it in writing? But don’t make it any longer than one page.’”

That one-page document was composed and signed in June of 2003, a month after June’s death.

“We did that in case after he left there was any question about what he wanted (the children) to do,” Robin says. In addition to John Carter, Cash’s extended offspring at the time of his death included acclaimed singer and writer Rosanne, as well as Kathy, Cindy and Tara, all products of his first marriage to Vivian Liberto, and June’s daughters Carlene and Rosie (who also died in 2003).

Cash left very explicit directions as to the weight his son would bear in caring for the legacy: He’d spent a lifetime cultivating “Johnny Cash” and didn’t want that image diluted.

“We’ll keep the business going as long as we can keep the image alive, which is what John Carter is charged with: Watching over that image,” Robin says.

“(John R.) said he wanted John Carter specifically to be the guiding light of his image and his name, so that it won’t be used in any manner other than it would have been used had he been alive,” Robin explains.

“There are a tremendous amount of requests that come in for licensing for movies, television and commercials,” he adds. “John Carter, myself, the trustee and lawyers all have to walk through all these requests to make sure we are dealing with what John’s wishes were, had he been sitting in the room with us.

“As long as we can keep the image alive and the music available for people to enjoy, that’s our mission.”

That music, by the way, will continue to be released into the future. Two projects in particular were scheduled this year: The Soul of Truth: Bootleg Vol. IV – the just-released continuation of a Columbia Legacy series – and a 63-CD Cash Complete Columbia Albums boxed set encompassing his career, going back to his breaking-in days with Sam Phillips at Sun Studio on Union Street in Memphis.

That label was, of course, home to the so-called “Million-Dollar Quartet” – Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. While many performers have a burst of popularity after they die, Elvis’ estate has set the platinum standard for keeping a career going strong – even flourishing more – long, long after death.

Both the Bootleg series and the monumental boxed set are overseen by producers Gregg Geller and Steve Berkowitz, Cash fanciers who have taken on these tasks for Columbia and its Legacy label offshoot.

The Soul of Truth was released this month. The 63-album set will be released in the autumn. Both, of course, are part of the 80th birthday celebration.

While Geller and Berkowitz perform the physical and intellectual tasks of putting the series of Bootlegs and the boxed set together, it’s done in collaboration with Robin and with image-protector John Carter Cash.

The newest installment of the Bootleg series won’t be the last. Fans have been buying up Cash recordings, either the archival, career-spanning stuff like this or installments from the Rubin-produced American Recordings.

“He’d be very excited to know that this long after his passing, the world is just as excited about his life,” John Carter Cash says. “He’s an intriguing character. It’s a good point to note that his music and the collection of his CDs is just as likely to be found with a little old lady with a big collection of country music as it is to be found in a collection of a punk-rock fan on the streets of Germany.

“There’s that intrigue, mystery. Everybody claims him.”

But just what part of the image is offered up to the public to be claimed is up to John Carter.

“My heart is to try to make decisions based on how Dad would have done things. I definitely go through my own processes regarding the decisions I make.”

“For instance, Dad never allowed the use of his name and likeness for alcohol and tobacco products.

“We’ve had a lot of calls to do that. And we’ve turned down a lot of offers. It’s not to say that these big companies that outright buy the name and likeness don’t have their place, but we’ve not done that at all.”

Of course, Cash’s own substance struggles are well chronicled, and he was open about them. “He didn’t want those various things he participated in when he was young, he didn’t want to be endorsing those for other children to do in later years, because they were too destructive and they led to problems.”

And the image that is being presented to the world is not sanitized or PC. Walk the Line was not a tame movie. It told the truth about the affair between a sometimes-addled Cash and the strong, protective and loving June Carter.

John Carter’s mom and dad both were involved in the planning of the film and approved the cast and of script decisions.

“They both saw the first draft of the script. They approved of the approach,” Robin says. “John and June were both very comfortable with the artists and the philosophy of the script.

“John didn’t want the writers to dwell on the drug times. There was so much more to John and his music and the influence he had worldwide with his music.”

Robin and John Carter and his sisters did their best to assure that after the two died the movie stayed true to the vision.

“I tried just as intently in that instance and purposely to make the decisions they would have made,” John Carter says. “It all boils down to matters of integrity.”

He fought “for the removal of curse words in the script and violence in scenes,” he says. “Walk the Line was a huge success and it continued this wheel (the Johnny Cash business) in motion.

“I think it (the boom in Cash interest) would have happened no matter. But the movie started off something,” he adds. “But his music was in place. It all added upon each other.”

“John just wanted to keep his image moving forward,” Robin says.

And so did June. In fact, even in death, she fueled him to not succumb to grief but keep pushing.

The frail man in the wheelchair who had to be helped to his feet to stare, tearfully down at the love of his life in the coffin in the Hendersonville church let his wife’s words steer him into intense physical and artistic healing.

“When June died, well she had asked him to walk again, which he did,” Robin says. “And she asked him to continue his music, which he did. She was very concerned about the outcome of (her) heart surgery, which is why she put it off so long.” Too long, it turned out.

As for his music, well he went at it vigorously, putting the finishing touches on existing recordings and creating, often with closest friends, some of his most important work.

Stuart, Josh Graves, Dave Roe and others were summoned to the famed Cash Cabin to retool some of the work that is a part of Cash’s Rubin–produced stark, gloaming examination of a life of regret, conquest, accomplishment and faith.

That last big burst of new recording by Johnny Cash helped make him an icon to new generations. Recordings like Cash’s take on Hurt and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers backing Cash on their signature Won’t Back Down proved relevance beyond the oldies crowd.

“There are still some tracks that haven’t been released,” Robin says.

“There is no stopping the business of Johnny Cash,” John Carter adds. “It is a huge part of my life. I have to see it every day of my life. The business is separate in my heart from my time with my father.”

While he spends countless hours tending to his father’s work and wishes, John Carter admits to loneliness that no T-shirt design nor boxed set nor movie soundtrack deal can salve.

“I miss the fun times,” he says. “I miss the laughing times. You always say ‘I wish I had done more.’ Well, I wish I would have gone to see more movies with him.

“I do see Johnny Cash (the business) every day, but I miss the man every day.”

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