It’s still a little hard for me to believe, even all these years after the fact, but I actually met Johnny Cash once.

My wife and I were still living in Illinois in early 1990 when Cash gave a concert at the historic old Rialto Theatre in Joliet. It was one of his first concerts after recovering from dental surgery he’d had some months earlier; even from our seats up in the nosebleed section you could tell his face was still a trifle swollen from the surgery, and he admitted right up front that he was still trying to get his energy back, but that didn’t stop him from turning in one of the best live performances I’ve ever had the good fortune to see.

After the show the fans lined up at a table the road crew had set up in the foyer, waiting for the chance to meet Johnny and his wife June, to shake his hand and chat a bit and maybe get an autograph or have their picture taken with the man. My wife took her place in the long line; I didn’t join her, mainly because I had made the mistake of drinking a rather large soda with dinner before the show and, well, nature was calling.

So I ran across the foyer and down a hallway that led to the men’s room, did what needed to be done, washed my hands and was standing there drying my hands under the hot air blower when the men’s room door swings open. 

And in walks Johnny Cash.

Everybody has celebrities they think they’d like to meet. Many folks have a long list. Not me; maybe I’m jaded by what I do for a living and by the realization that such meetings often prove to be disappointing to the adoring fan. But right there at the top of the very short list of celebrities I’d always wanted to meet was Johnny Cash.

I’m not a musician myself, but music has always been a big part of my life – a legacy from my parents, whose record collection was large enough and eclectic enough to ensure that my brothers and I gained an appreciation for various types of music that exceeded that of our classmates.  It wasn’t unusual for neighbors to pass by and hear all manner of sounds emanating from our living room record player, from Beethoven and Mario Lanza to the Kingston Trio  and the Chieftains.

And always – ALWAYS – Johnny Cash.

The first time I heard Johnny Cash’s granite-hard voice pour out of my father’s phonograph, I knew I was listening not to a singer but to a force of nature. Every syllable sounded like a cold truth, as real and stirring as a Sunday sermon. It scared the bejabbers out of me. It also made me a fan for life.

In a recording career that yielded more than 1,500 songs, Cash applied that unique voice to almost every kind of song – cowboy ballads, Native American sagas, railroad tunes, blues numbers, religious hymns, children's songs, spoken narratives, patriotic songs, love songs and comedic novelty numbers, each and every one delivered in what might best be described as the vocal equivalent of a monument hammered out of stone.

When Justin Timberlake one year demanded a recount and told the audience at the MTV Video Music Awards that Cash deserved the Best Male Video award he’d just won more than he did, many of us could not have agreed more. (Cash’s career spanned 48 years; does anyone think we'll still be hearing from Justin Timberlake in 2051?)

His long up-and-down battle against substance abuse is a matter of historical record, one of which he was not proud but was always willing to talk about with others. Had he lost that battle, his legend might have rivaled that of Hank Williams. 

But Cash didn't have to die to become a legend; instead he lived, and became an honest to goodness folk hero.

A hero I happened to meet just that one time, in the men’s room of the Rialto Theatre after the show.

He nodded in greeting and said hello and asked if I enjoyed the show. I swallowed hard and muttered something about how great it was; he smiled and said, “That’s what we like to hear!” Then he went on to do what needed to be done and I stumbled like a starstruck kid back out into the foyer.

Melissa was waiting for me, having come away from that long line pack with an autographed wooden train whistle. We still have that whistle, but I have to tell you that the memory of that brief conversation means a whole lot more...

(Copyright © 2019, by John A. Small)