By Jim Casey Part 2
Johnny Cash was about family and he was painfully loyal to all those around him. To Johnny Cash and June Carter, I was always simply, “Casey”. Not once did I ever bring a camera and request a picture. Same with Vince.
When we were around Cash in the early 70’s, we were treated like family. I tried to never take advantage of that trust they had in me. June loved to chat about family, and she always made one feel comfortable by asking about our lives and our families.
Throughout the latter part of the decade, Vince’s stature with the Cash family would fade, brought on by Vince’s growing drug use and the commercial failure of The Kingston Springs Suite. Vince became a constant reminder of those things in life that ‘The Great Johnny Cash’ couldn’t help or cure. While Cash knew he had no control over the changing times, and least of all the Nashville music business, his loyalty to friends constantly strained his own relationship with his wife, whose main concern was keeping John away from substances that might inhabit and overtake John’s life.
Year’s later, I would view John’s life story on screen, “Walk the Line.” I was struck by the physical similarities of the movie characters to their real life characters that they were portraying. One character in particular, a long-haired Nashville music sort who delivered John pills behind June’s back looked familiar. This character actually looked like Vince, and it reminded me, that as much as June liked Vince, there was always a little fear in her that Vince would get John back on pills.
I also observed that while amphetamines made some people nervous, when taken limited amounts others became calm and sure of themselves. Cash was one of those people. Of course, after several days without sleep, running on speed, one would tend to get greasy, nervous, and paranoid. The constant twitching and “hands through the hair” gyrations of Johnny Cash, that became part of his trademark, was easily imitated by Vince. Johnny Cash was Vince’s hero. If he couldn’t “be” Elvis, Cash was next in line. While John appreciated the adulation of such a talented and unique songwriter, Vince’s phone calls and visits became fewer and fewer as 1975 and 1976 passed by, and The Kingston Springs Suite became less of a sure vehicle for the next great songwriting stars.
One of the greatest personal moments involving The Suite was in the spring of 1972 when Vince suggested that we roll out the Suite with a performance at the Kingston Springs Elementary Gym as an audition for Johnny Cash. Most of the musicians we had put together for the evening were friends who had heard the songs and rehearsed the show. They included, John Harris on keys, “Doolin’ Lancaster on Drums, Danny Flowers on guitars and harmonica, Vince on acoustic guitar, myself on electric guitar and Jim Althouse on bass. This group would later make up the core of the studio band that recorded the Kingston Springs Suite at the House of Cash Studio.
Three of the young girls from Kingston Springs, “The Kingston Springs Cardinals”, under the watchful eyes of Virginia Harris, had rehearsed and learned several of our songs for backup. The girls sounded far from professional, but in Vince’s musical vision, they were the perfect complement to this group of “hippies” who made up the band. Posters were hand drawn and copied and distributed around the county. A special invitation was extended to Johnny Cash and his family, which included a young John Cash, Jr.
As the night of the performance drew nearer, excitement grew with an RSVP phone call from the Cash family, indicating that they would indeed, be in Kingston Springs for our initial performance of the Suite. This would be our great audition. The small gymnasium in Kingston Springs was filled with a body on every folding chair. The Cash’s were seated in a place of honor, front row, center. With several *brooder-house lights to set the mood, and a small sound system, we nervously kicked into our first song, “Laid Back Country Picker”.
The hard driving rhythm of the band set it apart from other groups. With Harris, Flowers, Althouse and myself all coming from the rock side of music, The Suite definitely cut new road.
Vince nervously ran his hands through his long black, shiny “Cherokee hair”, and banged away on the Gibson J-200 that Jack Clement had loaned him several months before. The sound of the band was a little rough but the energy and uniqueness of the songs cut through to the Cash’s, seated in the front row. Two songs into The Suite, the electric breaker powering the lights and sound system blew, immediately sending The Suite into silence. While Vince and the custodian tracked down the electrical problem, the audience sat in stunned silence.
Calling upon my high school experience as the class clown, I immediately grabbed the bowler hat I was wearing and with the custodians broom slowly executed a “soft-shoe” dance. As corny as it seemed, I knew I had to distract the audience and this was my poor excuse for a distraction. To my surprise John and June Cash started laughing, and following their lead, the audience laughed and clapped along until the electrical problem was solved and the show resumed. Our performance received an overwhelming hometown response from the audience and the Cash family. We thanked the audience and Vince invited everyone up to his house to celebrate and eat chili.
Later, as John and June sat at the table in Melva’s kitchen, eating chili and laughing in the country vernacular of small-town Tennessee, a peace descended upon Kingston Springs. The facade of being a star faded from Johnny Cash and for a brief hour or two, the Cashes were just ordinary folks like everyone else in Kinston Springs. This was enjoyment for John, to let down his guard and become one of the good ol’ boys that he knew so much about being.
To the credit of the folks from Kingston Springs, they genuinely treated the Cashes with the same hospitality they showed any visitor. Autograph requests were few, and aside from continuous line of young ladies who wanted to meet John and June, the party was much like any weekend at Vince’s House in Kingston Springs; folks in the yard, guitars playing, good cheer all around. As Johnny, June and Little John Cash prepared to leave Vince and Melva’s humble little house there were hugs all around, and the gratitude from the Cashes for this night in Kingston Springs was genuine. Finally the house and yard cleared of musicians, kids, dogs, and town folks, and in the temperature inverted silence of the Harpeth Valley, Vince and I sat under Clarence the Tree and smoked our last one of the day, content that we had done our best, and pleased that our little group of musicians and songs had entertained the Man in Black, and the Man who had entertained millions had clapped his hands to our songs and laughed at our jokes. On a Kingston Springs night like this, anything was possible.
If you have stories or pictures from those days, Jim Casey would love to see them! You can contact him at:
To be continued …
‘Kingston Springs Suite’ Production Ends Today
Reprinted from The Tennessean, April 28th, 1973
Production of a country music opera featuring Kingston Springs will conclude this morning with the people of the Cheatham County town singing in the streets.
Paul Seelberg, press agent for “The Kingston Springs Suite” being produced by Vince Matthews and Jim Casey, said the opera consists of a stage performance, live music, color slides and motion pictures telling the story of Kingston Springs. It will be presented on television networks in Johnny Cash’s studio this summer, he said.
HE ADDED THAT a record album on the opera produced by Shel Silverstein will be released later. Silverstein, he said, will be present for the Friday premiere of the opera at the Encore Theater.
Seelberg said the release of the record album had been planned sooner, “but we don’t want a label deal when we present it to television networks this summer. We figure we can get a better deal later.”
He said Cash has given his support to the project. He said: “Cash hasn’t invested in it, but is willing to let us use his recording studio and staff. It was presented at one of his personal appearances.”
Editor’s note: Thanks to Anita McElroy and Carolyn Cauthen for sending this article to us.