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Remembering When Johnny Cash Stopped To Talk To A Young Reporter


My friend and colleague Don Gonyea and I covered the White House together for NPR. We shared a little radio booth in the basement of the West Wing. We shared notebooks, audio equipment and an office computer. And that is where Don once found a music CD I had been listening to. Let's just say it was pop country. Don gave me a pretty hard time. He suggested I listen to some of the great traditional country music, and he has been suggesting albums to me ever since. All of this will make perfect sense when you listen to this encore story from Don Gonyea about his first job and meeting a hero.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: I have been in radio, now, for more than 30 years. My very first job right out of college, I was a country-western disc jockey.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Hey, thank you, Mr. Cowboy, but here comes the sun...

GONYEA: Bobcat Friendly Ford time, it's 15 before 10 o'clock. Wayne, you're back from the fair.

WAYNE: Yes, I am.

GONYEA: Did you ride the Zipper?

WAYNE: No, we had power failure out there.

GONYEA: That's what I heard...

I worked at the radio station in Monroe, Michigan. That's my hometown - mostly rural, pretty sleepy, located halfway between Detroit and Toledo. And in August of 1981, I was at the county fair. It was a Saturday night, and I remember standing there with my tape recorder and my microphone.


GONYEA: One, two, three - that's working.

...not too far from the Midway.


GONYEA: ...pack a blank tape...

To my right, the grandstands, where they do the demolition derby; to my left is this big, silver tour bus. And I am about to meet one of my musical heroes.


GONYEA: OK, getting ready to do the Johnny Cash press conference.

That's right - Johnny Cash.


GONYEA: And here's Johnny. How you doing, Johnny?

JOHNNY CASH: Hi, how you doing?

GONYEA: Welcome to Monroe.

CASH: Thank you.

GONYEA: I'm from WBMO, the radio station here in town.

CASH: Mm-hmm.

GONYEA: Glad to have you here.

CASH: Thank you. Nice to be here.

GONYEA: Just some background here - when I found out Johnny Cash was coming to the county fair, I tried to line up an interview - no response. Tried again - nothing. Finally, a guy who worked at the fair said, if you stand here at this railing, his tour bus is there; the stage is there. Maybe as he walks past, he'll stop and talk to you. He did.


GONYEA: Do you tour as much as you used to, these days? Do you still get the thrill of being on the road...

CASH: Yeah.

GONYEA: ...as when you were younger?

CASH: Yeah, I still travel as much as I ever did. We're doing about 120 concerts this year.

GONYEA: How about - can you tell us a little bit about the new album, "The Baron?" Is it traditional Johnny Cash, or are you breaking any new ground there?

CASH: A big part of it's traditional. Of course, the title song was the reason for the album, "The Baron," which was a fairly big seller for us. Not a number one record, but Rosanne Cash wouldn't let me in the number one spot.

GONYEA: (Laughter).

CASH: But a big part of it is traditional, yes.

GONYEA: You mentioned Rosanne. You pretty pleased with the way things are going for her these days?

CASH: I'm very pleased with her. I'm very happy for her.

GONYEA: On the new album, you didn't write any of the songs. Do you prefer to write your own material, or do you...

CASH: A good song is a good song. I had several songs that I wrote and sang for the producer. And we recorded two or three of them. But as it turned out, mine weren't in it.

GONYEA: Do you have a favorite song that you've recorded?

CASH: "I Walk the Line."


CASH: (Singing) I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. I keep the ends out for the tie that binds, because you're mine, I walk the line.

GONYEA: Now, remember, I arrived at the fair that day not knowing if he'd stop to talk to us, so I didn't have this big list of questions ready. And he kept talking and he stood there, even though I kept expecting him to walk away. So after a while, I raised what I didn't realize at the time, but was kind of a sore spot. Country music was becoming more pop, less pure country.


GONYEA: These days, a lot of country stars are starting to cross over into the national charts and have national hits.

CASH: As you say, it seems that the record companies are trying for a "crossover," quote, hit. That's not what country music is all about, to me. Generally, when I'm in charge of the production of my records, I try to record the best Johnny Cash song I can find, and do it in a way that's comfortable for me. And hopefully, the people will like it. And usually, they're unadorned and not overproduced...

GONYEA: So now, five, six, seven minutes have passed and I am out of questions. So I ask him...


GONYEA: How'd you get to be the Man in Black?

I cringe a little bit when I hear that question, but you've got to love his answer.


CASH: For one reason, it's a little more slimming, and...


GONYEA: OK, there was - there was a little bit more to his answer.


CASH: I wrote a song called "Man in Black" about 1970. I don't know, in the song, you see where I pointed up some of the problems and the ills that we have in this country. But I point to myself as being one of those people responsible for correcting some of those problems and unfortunate things that happen to people here.


CASH: (Singing) I wear it for the sick and lonely old, for the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold. I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could've been. Each week we lose a hundred fine young men...

GONYEA: Here's what I like about this interview, all these years later. I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but this was not a good point in Johnny Cash's life. That new album I asked him about? It flopped. He couldn't really get on country radio anymore. "Folsom Prison" had been 12 years earlier. It was another 12, 13 years before he would have that late-career comeback. But on that day, he was way nicer to me than he had any reason to be. I was just this kid, you know, wearing a plaid shirt with a corduroy vest, from some local radio station that he'd never heard of; but he took the time to answer all of my questions. Eventually, he had to wrap it up and head to the stage. He had a show to do. But just before he did, I ceased being this accidental journalist and I let myself be a fan.


CASH: I'm on stage.

GONYEA: Can I get you to sign this?

I brought with me the album sleeve from one of his recent LPs. I asked him if he'd sign it. I still have that signature.


CASH: Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.


CASH: (Singing) I hear the train a'coming, it's rolling round the bend, and I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when. I'm stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps dragging on...

GREENE: That was Don Gonyea with his story of meeting the Man in Black during his first job as a disc jockey in Monroe, Michigan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.

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