Fort Wayne Man Shares "Moment"

This appeared in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinal - July 22, 2005

Passions of this magnitude are hard to pack into a one-hour TV special.

But for Fort Wayne resident John L. Smith, the latest episode of Country Music Television’s “In the Moment” series represents the culmination of a two-year project that intertwines his reverence for Native Americans, his interest in music, and his longtime friendships with the late Johnny Cash and country musician-composer Marty Stuart.

“In the Moment: Marty Stuart,” which premieres Saturday (July 23, 2005) on CMT, is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Stuart’s Badlands CD, which is set for release in October.

Smith, a Johnny Cash discographer, was interviewed for the television special, and he is included in footage of Mississippi-born Stuart visiting various Native American sites in South Dakota.

“Marty has seen it already and he said I should be pleased with it,” said Smith, 65, an instructional assistant in the Learning Center at Summit Middle School. Smith will watch the show for the first time Saturday.

Smith and Stuart, who met 20 years ago through mutual friend and fellow Native American buff Johnny Cash, worked on Badlands (Superlatone Records), for two years.

Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, also came onboard and was co-producer of the CD. The men sequestered themselves in a South Dakota hotel room while Stuart composed 13 of the CD’s 14 songs. Smith served as consultant and fact-checker: He made sure the lyrics are historically accurate.

Songs on Badlands, an album about the history, culture and future of Native Americans in South Dakota, include “Broken Promise Land” and “Walking Through the Prayers.”

The 14th song on the album is a cover of “Big Foot,” which Johnny Cash composed immediately after he, wife June Carter Cash and Smith toured Wounded Knee battlefield. Cash scribbled it down as Smith drove them to the airport, and he performed it for Smith before they left.

“It just seemed like the right song to put on the album,” Smith said. “What better way to honor John(ny)?”

Smith became friends with him in 1967. A mutual interest in Native American history — not music — initially brought them together. Smith, who was living in Des Moines, Iowa, and teaching himself anthropology at the time, had written a paper about the Lakota religion that was published by the University of South Dakota. Cash somehow got his hands on a copy and contacted him.

Smith’s first Cash discography — the 48-page Johnny Cash Discography and Recording History — was published in 1969. His third and most recent Cash discography — Another Song to Sing: The Recorded Repertoire of Johnny Cash (1999) — is a 922-page volume with more than 2,600 entries, one for each song Cash recorded.

After Cash’s death in September 2003, Smith helped select songs for Life (CBS/Sony, 2004), an 18-track CD of Cash songs about love, family and other aspects of living.

Smith retired from the Des Moines phone company in 1990. In 1995, he and his family – wife Charlene, son Billy, and daughters Diana, Jennifer and Jessie – moved to Fort Wayne. But his friendship with Cash transcended time and place: They kept in close contact until the week of Cash’s death, from respiratory failure, at age 71.

Smith and Stuart’s friendship also developed over the years, leading to their current collaboration.

Badlands took Stuart, Smith and John Carter Cash on pilgrimages in May and October 2004 to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Rapid City, S.D. Stuart and Smith have traveled to the region many times since they met in the early 1980s, and have made many friends among the Lakota people.

“We’ve had good times and bad times there,” Smith said. “We’ve seen a whole generation (of Lakota) pass away. We lost two beautiful sisters earlier this year.”

The collaborators returned to South Dakota in March to record the CD, then visited again in June with a film crew from Country Music Television. They got video of Stuart, his band and his wife, country singer Connie Smith (no relation to John Smith), and John Carter Cash giving a benefit concert on the reservation, against the scenic backdrop of the Badlands.

The CMT cameras followed Stuart, Smith and John Carter Cash as they toured Wounded Knee, where more than 300 members of the Lakota tribe, including women and children, were killed in 1890 by the U.S. 7th Cavalry.

“The highlight of this whole thing for me was being able to take John Carter to the (battlefield), where I first took his father in December 1968. I showed him pictures of his father and me (at the site). We released a lot of emotions on this trip,” Smith said.

By Carol Tannehill

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