'My Father Was a Wildfire'

The only son of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash talks about his parents' faith, their relationship, and their musical legacy.

BY: Interview by David Caldwell


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Your half-sister, Kathy, was interviewed a week ago by the Nashville Tennessean after members of the family watched an advance screening of the film. She said she walked out of the film five times because she thought her mother, Vivian Liberto Distin, was treated poorly. Is it hard when you're making a film like this to make everybody happy?

Well, what we have is a story about the formation of a relationship--a strong relationship. My father was a wildfire. Really. Nobody could save him from anything. His family turned away from him, and he broke up with his first wife. It just happened to be that when he was going to get back up on his feet, my mother was there. The movie is not about his relationship with Vivian [who died earlier this year]. That was never my father's intention, or my mother's, to have a movie about their life before they met. What they wanted was a movie about their love, about their life together with God. However anybody feels--how I feel, or how my sister feels or whatever--I still stand strong and true and firmly that this is the movie that my parents together would have made. That's all that matters to me.

You've produced an album, "Home to You," by the Peasall Sisters, the girls who became famous in the film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," singing the kind of music your mother loved. How did that all come about?

One of the girls, Leah, took fiddle lessons from my wife, Laura, for a long time. I got to know her and them through my wife's relationship. I got to be friends with all of them. Got together in the studio with them and did some demos and sought out a record deal with them. My mother--when she first saw "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"--she was exuberant when she heard those little girls. They were singing the songs that she was singing when she was a little girl with her sisters. And she said, "My God. That's me, Helen and Anita up there." She was very excited about their music. That's really when I first got to know them. I was connected with them in many ways early on through my mother's music and the songs that they'd sing. It made great sense to work together. It's very traditional music. It's the real thing.

Do you think there was a heightened interest in your mother's music, and bluegrass music in general, after "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

It reawakened people who were interested in "old-timey" music, the roots of bluegrass music. Where does bluegrass music come from? All the songs in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" are pre-bluegrass. There were a lot of bluegrass musicians out there starting their careers in the 1930s and 1940s who grew up listening to the Carter family. That's the roots of the music. There's a June Carter Cash box set on Legacy Records. There's a lot of music out there spanning her career. I'm glad her music is out there. It means a lot.

You're involved now with an album called "Voice of the Spirit." Is that music similar to your mother's?

"Voice of the Spirit" was a project I'd been talking about for a long time. It began as an Appalachian record. But it's a record of all pure Southern gospel. I got a bunch of different artists together and did all of it here in Nashville. Good friends making good music. They're all brand-new recordings, but they're old songs I've found in various places, including Carter Family songs.

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