On the Road With Johnny Cash and the Planet Earth Tour

This article written by Marty appeared in Country Music Magazine - September/October 1985

November 1984. If you've ever spent any time out on the road, you know that restless feeling that rises up after you've been off for a month and reminds you that it's time to leave the comforts of home to go out for a few thousand miles drive.

The final leg of the two-year-long Johnny Cash Planet Earth Tour began in Phoenix, Arizona. Autumn was showing its colors in Nashville, but Phoenix, with its eighty-degree climate, was a last reminder of how good summer had been. One last look at the multishades of purple and deep red in the late evening sky as the sun gradually disappeared into the desert night, like a scene from a Peckinpah movie.

Here was the first stop of a twenty-city tour: the Arizona State Fair with a few thousand whooping and hollering fellow cowpersons attending. We took the stage cold and with no sound check or rehearsal and, like most first nights out, it felt more like a dress rehearsal than a live show as we played our way through a string of songs. Cash announced that we would be leaving for Europe in the morning to do some concerts there and I was trying to psych myself that it was going to be fun, already missing my family and wondering whether I got everything done before I left home this morning. You know, the more human side of show biz. Then I happened to hear a familiar voice saying, "Here's one for you cowboys and cowbellies, 'Ghost Riders in the Sky,'" as I came down out of space: hello, we're on tour!

The next morning everyone stood around in the airport as we were waiting to leave, speculating on everything from the weather to the presidential election that we would miss and our hero Jerry Lee's comment to the press after he did his song and dance for the IRS about not knowing exactly how he was going to pay them: "Maybe I could get a good G.I. loan." But nobody could remember Uncle Gerald ever serving in the armed forces. We did remember how things were at this same time last year. We were just returning from Europe, leaving few fond memories, not the best music ever played, less than favorable reviews and the scariest part immediately after we got home, John R. being rushed in for major surgery and almost dying, then recovering and going on to the Betty Ford Center in California. That's all over though, and this year had been good from the first tour back in March. Everybody's health was miraculously restored. There was plenty of work to do, and it was pretty much business as usual. But for many reasons, this was more than just the annual trip to Europe. There was an anxious feeling around that we were ready to make up for not being up to par on the last tour and then some.

The Johnny Cash Christmas Special which was to be filmed in Montreux, Switzerland, sat out on the calendar like a reward at the end of the race. The city alone would be a spectacular enough event, but the music promised to be even better. How could it not be with a line-up of people like Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson? But that was seventeen days away and more important now was the eight-hour airplane ride.

Our initial stop was Oxford, England where Cash did the first of eleven two-and-a-half hour shows. No intermission, no razzle dazzle, just a musical marathon. Midway into this show, the band found the groove, claimed it, and never fell out of it for the remainder of the tour. Each night along the way was a musical happening. There were Carter Family songs, cowboy songs, folk standards, gospel music, work songs and a seemingly endless collection of early Sun Records classics.

June and Anita sang Carter Family songs, sitting in chairs at the edge of the stage with their guitars and autoharp. It was reminiscent of the stories of the early days of the Carter Family when A.P., Sara and Maybelle would play those little school houses in mining communities with kerosene lamps for stage lights. It was as close an intimate as the songs themselves. John R. defined the delivery of the Merle Travis classic "Dark as a Dungeon," and it would have made ole Travis proud. Cash learned how to make a B-minor chord on the guitar and, in keeping with his motto "If it don't fit, force it," he was likely to play his newfound chord at any time, on any song. But it was all musical, and the magic thumb stirred and gave way to the only beat in town.

We danced across the face of Europe, playing shows in Wales, Finland, England and Scotland before going on to Switzerland, making good music and amends, if there really were any needed, with a seemingly unlimited force of sober fire..

Montreux, Switzerland. It was better than a disk jockey convention or Fan Fair or any other hillbilly happening. Montreux Palace Hotel was like a palace. Where else on earth, for the next four days, had claim to any such combination of personalities? The elite calvary. To see them all together, with every mile showing on their faces. If it had been 1912 and this were Mexico, Cash, Willie, Waylon and Kristofferson could easily have been taken for four of Pancho Villa's Dorados, or "Golden Ones," en route to the Mexican convention. Instead, they had fanned the western border for Switzerland and gathered here with their wives to film the Christmas show.

Nobody knew the name of this show. Our piano player, Earl Ball, suggested "Recovery Christmas" because everyone was so healthy and clear-eyed. Cash said, "Aw, call it 'One Christmas at a Time'." However, the producer confirmed that it would be called "Christmas on the Road."

Kristofferson showed up with some new songs. "Here's one I wrote called 'Love is the Way.' It goes 'Deep in the heart of infinite darkness, a tiny blue marble is spinning through space. Born in the splendor of God's holy vision, sliding away like a tear down his face. Closer you see the whole wide holy wonder, oceans and mountains, rivers and trees. And the strangest creation of many, the human, a creature of laughter and freedom and dreams'."

And the magic started.

To see Kris standing there teaching his words to everybody and to see them like a convicted choir, out on Sunday morning, and then hear him sing a song that he wrote for Cash because "John beat the devil again"....With every phrase I saw John R. grow a shade meeker and, when it was finished, a glassy-eyed John simply said, "Thank you, Kris" and give him a big hug. Waylon said, "I've got to have that one." John said, "All right, but I want the other one. Would you put it on tape for me after a while?" Kris consented. It was a whole lot more than just a television show. Actually, after the first hour, it was more like a family reunion. Cash said, "Man, this is inspirational. It makes me want to write and sing." He and Willie sang "I Still Miss Someone." It felt like it had been written for the moment. Good songs always do sound like that. After they finished singing, Willie laid his guitar down and Cash picked it up to look at all of the signatures. "Hey, Willie, can I sign your guitar?" Somebody produced a pen and it was done.

It's natural for a star to have a slightly larger than normal ego for his public image, but everybody left theirs somewhere else. There was total consideration on everyone's part. It was like a musical vacation. Hardly anyone at this hotel spoke English and a few people recognized the foursome or, if they did, they left them alone. Very few people even realized that a television show was being filmed.

There was one group of good ole Swiss boys who were die-hard Willie fans. They looked like characters out of a Honeysuckle Rose bar scene. They had come across country in an old bus that they had fixed up to resemble the bus from that movie. They asked Willie if he would look at it. Not only did he look at it, he got in and went out on the town to a local casino and sang for a while with the good ole Swiss boys. This was the spirit of things.

Second day. As Waylon and Jessi sang "Silent Night," there was silence. The sound was haunting and pure as Jessi played the piano and Waylon sang. John called Jessi the "prayer warrior" for the show. He said, "If you need something prayed about, tell Jessi. She calls sometimes just to let us know she's remembering us." And it was powerful to hear everybody singing "I'd rather have Jesus than worldwide fame, I want to be true to His holy Name."

But a TV show will be a TV show. Chips Moman was brought over as the musical overseer, and he immediately recognized the importance of having Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson together. He wanted the event recorded as perfectly as possible. But the production company put more emphasis on everything else but the recording system. The crisis came when Willie asked if he could go into the recording studio and record his guitar and Chips went to check it out. When he discovered that the system dated back to the technology of the 1950's, Chips blew up! It gave us great satisfaction to see him with his finger in the producer's face, spitting "Hey you have 747 talent on your stage and you only have cropduster equipment to record them on." Well, right then this bell started ringing in my ear and I clearly understood Cowboy Jack Clement's universal truth that all people from Memphis speak in parables--the other two universal truths being "Women don't like steel guitars" and "If you throw enough shit against the wall, somebody will see a picture in it." Nevertheless, Chips drew a round of applause for his concern for the music.

The rehearsal wrapped up, and June invited everybody to the Cash suite after dinner for a guitar pullin' and general get-together. Kris put his songs on tape for Waylon and John. June, Jessi, Toni Moman, Lisa Kristofferson and Connie Nelson rehearsed a song that they would be doing on the show. The guitar was passed around to John, who sang "Deportee," the old Woody Guthrie song about the airplane load of Mexican immigrants who died in a crash over Los Gatos Canyon in Northern California. Just as he was singing, out of nowhere, a door in the room slammed closed. Somebody said, "Ah, it was probably just Woody," Waylon said, "Yeah, or Hank. He goes with us sometimes."

June knows how to throw a bash, and this one 'was a five-star guitar pullin'. There were great songs being sung. Kristofferson commented, "If I could have gone to something like this when I was first starting, I wouldn't have had to eat for a year. The inspiration is just great."

John and Willie started singing bits and pieces of some of their more obscure songs from the 1960's. I was impressed that, while Nashville was flowing in one direction during that time, Willie's words were going elsewhere, and that he, like Cash, had confronted issues not always landing on a commercial target. Looking back after hearing this, it's apparent that it took a tailor-made situation to let Willie Nelson evolve.

Waylon said, "Hey, John. Here's a song that I'll bet you didn't know that I knew. The one you wrote for Ricky Nelson." So Waylon sang all of a hardly known song "Restless Kid," that Cash wrote at Nelson's request for the John Wayne film Rio Bravo but was not used.

As songs and stories were swapped, it was clear that these guys have appreciated each other's work down through the years, and now, for the first time ever in this combination, they were in the midst of a musical gathering. Collectively, their singing and their songs represent a major portion of serious country music as it is known today. It fell together so naturally that you got the feeling that this wouldn't be the last time you'd hear them sing together. Like seeing four guys discovering that if they sing together, they wound a certain way. And, well, the songs are there. Everybody has some trucks and buses.. What if....? Nobody said, "We should do a record or a movie together." But a zillion and one possibilities went flying by as the night wore on.

Long after the gathering was over, I was awake thinking. I'm still awed at how things come together in this world. It seems that if something is meant to happen, you can't stop it. And timing proves to be the key again and again. Ten or fifteen years ago, tonight's gathering would have yielded a totally different impact. Hillbilly Central and the House of Cash were worlds apart. Outlaw was a baby. Kris was delivering demos of his songs in helicopters, and Austin was only the capital of Texas. John R. and Waylon tested the musical waters together from time to time along the way. Waylon and Willie made their mark, and everybody sang Kris' songs. And now that the time seems right, what if you combined all of these worlds? How could it not be great?

Bocephus is right. Nobody's rowdy anymore. A lot of people say amen to that. Everybody looks healthy, content, wise and in love with their families. Waylon is a great study in motion these days. He goes around happy all the time. The drugs that he credits for covering up his voice for so long have all cleared away. Waylon Jennings hasn't sung as true as he's singing right now in well over a decade. Listen for yourself. W. S. Holland, Cash's longtime drummer and a lifelong teetotaler, remarked that if he ever did decide to start taking dope, when the time came to get off of it, he wanted to do it exactly the way Waylon did it. "I've never seen it change a man for the better as much as it has Waylon, and I've been knowing him for 20 years."

Final day. If I had to single out any one particular thing that I like about the Cash organization, it would be that it constantly evolves. You can set your watch by the fact that things are going to change daily. It grows. Sometimes to the left, but that's fine. John, Marshall and Luther started from the left in 1955. Thinking back on only two years' worth of towns, airports, truckstops, picking parlors, recording sessions, television shows, movies, books, people, hotels, songs, emotions and fire escapes is enough to make me want to just do it some more.

You can claim the road, or it can claim you. It has taken too many to mention. It's a way to make a living, a good place to run when the water gets too hot everywhere else, another place to play your music--and it's freedom. There's a million reasons to be out there and that's why we're all doing it. It's in vogue to be a hillbilly in 1985, and this Fearsome Foursome, as Russ Barnard calls them, have contributed greatly to that cause. It's easy to understand why Willie has the world's attention right now. He deserves it. It's that simple. Not only is he a great talent, he's also a good man. It's not hard to understand why the world respects Johnny Cash. He really cares, and he's been there in the face of whatever emotion you'll care to talk about. So he understands. Waylon has earned his keep. Every bit of it. He's tough. He's proved himself and his music. And then there's Kris and his profound words that will stand as long as there is a world.

The road always offers a new beginning. Montreux felt like the beginning of something. The world enjoyed the Christmas special and shared in some of the good will that went around there. But I hoped with all of the creative seeds dropped there, something more would spring forth.

After the last bit of filming was done, John R. shook hands with Willie and said, "I'm glad this happened. I feel like I got to know you. I enjoyed singing last night. We should record some things with that same feel!" Willie said, "Well, why don't you come down to my studio in Texas, and we'll do it." It's reassuring that in the midst of corporate country music, those verbal deals still exist.

Cowboy Jack Clement calls Johnny Cash, "Captain Decibel." And three of the best rules that the captain ever thought of were: One. Don't sweat the small stuff. Two. If it don't fit, force it. Three. I don't believe in endings, only new beginnings. Good rules to run a tour by.

And the Planet Earth tour wound down into history. The credits were rolling while the wheels were turning to decide what to call the next year's worth of concerts. And as Crowell says, "That old high-waaay goes on forever."

Postscript: Austin, Texas, July 4, 1985. Well, like I said, after the gathering in Switzerland, we felt and hoped something was going to happen. Something did: The Highwayman.

John was already working on an album which would be his first with ace producer Chips Moman, who had already produced individual albums for Willie, Waylon, and Kris. I was pleased that John and Chips had recorded two songs I had suggested: "The Highwayman" by Jimmy Webb and "Deportee" by the legendary Woody Guthrie. Glen Campbell had even stopped by to record a demo to help us learn "The Highwayman" which he has recorded ten years ago.

John cut "Love is the Way," the new song Kris had given him in Switzerland. John asked Waylon to sing on it. Around the same time, Willie and Kris were in town working with Brenda Lee and Dolly Parton on a TV show, The Winning Hand, on which Cash was the host. Plus Willie and John had just recorded "I Still Miss Someone" as a step toward the duet album idea they'd discussed in Switzerland. But, instead of standing in line for another duet album, John was looking for a different idea. So, one night after working on the TV show, John mentioned to Willie and Kris how much he liked "The Highwayman," which we had just recorded. Willie said, "Yeah, let's call up Chips and record it together." So they rounded up Waylon, got Chips out of bed and recorded "The Highwayman" over the tracks we had already put down. That was the start of the Great Magic Album Project. Several sessions later, when the album was basically finished, Willie, John, Chips and CBS's Bonnie Garner were talking about other songs they might do. I said, "Do you know a Guy Clark song called 'Desperados Waiting for A Train'?" Willie said he's wanted to record it for years, and John said, "Guy Clark sends it to me once a year," So they all said, "Let's do it," and they did.

So now I'm standing on stage at Willie's Picnic with the Fearsome Foursome, as my editor Russ Barnard has now dubbed them. It's an honor to participate in all of this--like watching history develop from the inside. It rained all day on this Texas hillside. But at five o'clock, when Johnny Cash took the stage for the first time ever at Willie's Picnic and was joined by the rest of The Highwaymen, the clouds rolled back.

I've used a lot of words to tell you my side of this story. To see what John R. has to say about The Highwayman, just read this poem he wrote, "How Can You Tell."

How Can You Tell
John: Hey Willie, how come you never did a duet album with Bill Monroe?
Willie: He's in the "M's."
Kris: Man, my throat's sore. I hope I don't sound hoarse.
Chips: How can you tell?
Kris: Let's dedicate this album to Sam Pekinpah.
Waylon: Yeah, we can kill each other when we finish.
John: Waylon, I thought you and I were gonna do some duets.
Waylon: I thought you and Willie were going to do some duets.
Kris: Let's all do duets and then put them all together.
John: What'll we call ourselves?
Willie: How about "The Other Brothers."
Waylon: We don't sound like brothers.
Chips: How can you tell?
Kris: Willie won't phrase with us.
Waylon: Yeah, it throws us off.
John: Yeah, it makes us sound bad.
Willie: How can you tell?
Chips Moman Studio, 11:00 p.m., January 5, 1985

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