Tag Archives: Brush Arbor
I just finished reading Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilbum and I must say I hated reaching the book’s end, not just because it ends with Cash’s death but because it was such a terrific read. Hilburn is a wonderful writer (music critic and editor for the Los Angeles Times for over 30 years) and he really knows how to tell a story. From what I understand, this book is the definitive biography of Cash (over 600 pages long) and it is brutally honest, well-researched and intimately detailed. It’s not a celebrity tell-all book that makes you feel like you need a shower after reading it, however. Hilburn wrote it with the full cooperation of Cash’s children as well as the Man in Black himself who told the author that “he wanted people to know his entire story—especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments—because he believed in redemption and he wanted others to realize that they too could be redeemed regardless how badly they had stumbled.”
Mr. Hilburn, himself a secular journalist, weaves Cash’s faith in Christ—inconsistent and contradictory as it was—into the storyline throughout the book. It begins with a picture of young J.R. (he didn’t become “Johnny” until after he started making records) attending church with his family “every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night. Unlike other kids who complained about having to go to church, he looked forward to the music, the sermons and the sense of community.” Hilburn writes that although Cash’s pledge of fidelity in “I Walk the Line” (“Because you’re mine … I walk the line”) was undeniably inspired by his love for his first wife, Vivian (whom he would eventually leave for June Carter), he adds that Cash often spoke of the song as an expression of his allegiance to Christ as well. In fact, Cash called the song “his first gospel hit.” I’ve listened to that song hundreds of times and never made that connection. The book is full of interesting revelations like that.
Johnny Cash has become much better known for his dark side, however—his addictions, his moral failures, his frequent run-ins with the law, and his famous “one-finger salute” photo that went viral after it was featured on a full-page ad in Billboard magazine. According to Hilburn, the photo was taken at Cash’s 1969 concert at San Quentin prison. Apparently, Cash was fed up with the TV crew following him around and decided to send them a little message. The subsequent photo of a snarling Cash flashing his middle finger at the camera was acquired years later by Cash’s record producer Rick Rubin who decided to use it on the Billboard ad in 1998 after Cash’s album “Unchained” won the Grammy Award for Best Country Album. The caption read “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.” (The joke, of course, was that country radio and the Nashville music establishment snubbed the album altogether.) “Cash was uneasy about the ad,” writes Hilburn, “so he called Billy Graham to ask for advice.” Graham’s response? According to Cash, “He didn’t tell me what to do or not to do, just that he wouldn’t judge me either way. After my talk with him, I prayed about it and called Rick back. I gave him the go-ahead.”
I have to say that my opinion of Billy Graham went up after I read that story.
One reason I wanted to read this book is because I have had a couple of personal encounters with Johnny Cash and actually got to work with him when I was in the group Brush Arbor. We played a couple of concerts with Cash in 1973 and we also appeared on a TV special that he did for NBC. I must admit that I checked the table of contents of Hilburn’s book to see if by any chance we got a mention. We didn’t.
We didn’t deserve one of course. That TV show which aired in January 1974 wasn’t a significant part of Cash’s legacy, but it certainly was a highlight of Brush Arbor’s career. We flew from San Diego to New York for the taping of the show which was done at NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center. In a classic case of being too self preoccupied to pay much attention to what was going on around me, I’m sure I spent most of the time in our dressing room practicing banjo rolls rather than soaking in the part of history I was getting to witness up close and personal. Besides Cash and his ensemble (the Tennessee Three, the Statler Brothers, June Carter, The Carter Family, Mother Maybelle Carter, his daughters Rosanne and Rosie, etc.), Bill Monroe was on the show as was Tanya Tucker, Larry Gatlin and Carl Perkins. I can’t tell you how many times I have wished I knew then what I know now. And I also wish I my camera hadn’t been stolen on that trip. I left it in our dressing room while we were taping the show and when I got back, it was gone. So I have no pictures of our time in New York City with Johnny Cash.
But I have some good memories, like the night we went out to dinner with Cash and his family at a famous Italian Restaurant in New York called Mama Leone’s. There were about 15 of us as I recall at the table: Cash and his family, Larry Gatlin and us. After we ordered our meal, I got up to use the restroom. At the back of the restaurant where the restrooms were located, one of the waiters asked me (in a strong Italian accent), “Excuse-a me. Is-a that-a Johnny Carson at your table?” I thought that was hilarious and when I got back to the table I remember Cash got a kick out of it too.
My camera may have been stolen, but thanks to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, I do have video of the performance we did on the that TV Show:
And here’s a photo of us with Cash that was taken by our manager Dan McKinnon. Speaking of one finger salutes, it appears that I (yes, that’s me in the upper left hand corner) was sending an unintentional message of my own.
Back to the book. One aspect of Cash’s life that resonated strongly with me throughout the book was Cash’s determination to keep going, his perseverance. He was strongly committed to his music, his family and his faith and he never gave up on any of them even though he failed miserably and made disastrous personal and professional decisions. He never gave up on his musical career even after it had deteriorated to the point that he was in the mid 1990′s performing in Branson to half-empty showrooms of disinterested blue-haired tourists. I remember seeing Johnny Cash around that same time with a bewildered look on his face standing in a small exhibit hall table at the Christian Booksellers Convention, hawking Bibles for Thomas Nelson. How the mighty have fallen, I thought at the time. But Cash kept on going. Late in life, he finally kicked his pill habit and his sagging career was ultimately revived by rap producer Rick Rubin, the man responsible for some of Cash’s best work, including “Hurt,” the haunting song (and video) that introduced Cash to a whole new generation of listeners. Suddenly he became an international star again.
On a side note, I think it would be wonderful if everyone had a Rick Rubin in his or her life—someone younger and smarter who could bring the best out in us when we get old and stuck.
Rejuvenated as he was, he continued to write songs and record through heart surgeries, neurological problems, a damaged jaw and failing eyesight. He even continued working after his beloved wife June Carter passed away in May 2003. He died four months later at the age of 71. By then, according to one estimate, doctors had him on some 30 medications.
His son, John Carter, later said: “I believe the thing about Dad that people find so easy to relate to is that he was willing to expose his most cumbersome burdens, his most consuming darknesses. He wasn’t afraid to go through the fire and say: ‘I fell down. I’ve made mistakes. I’m weak. I hurt.’ But in doing so, he gained some sort of defining strength. Every moment of darkness enabled him to better see the light.”
Today my old friend Dan McKinnon was laid to rest at Miramar National Cemetery after a very Christ-centered funeral service at Clairemont Emmanual Baptist Church. He died on Thanksgiving Day, having lived a fruitful life of 78 years. You can read an article about Dan’s life in the UT newspaper by clicking here.
Before he died, Dan meticulously planned his own funeral service, which is exactly what took place today. Congressman Duncan Hunter and his former pastor Tim LaHaye spoke, as did several other friends and relatives. Dan asked for specific songs to be sung: I Saw the Light, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Daddy Sang Bass, Angel Band and the old spiritual Amen. It was my honor to play banjo and sing those songs for Dan today along with my old Brush Arbor band mates Ken Munds and Dave Rose.
I first met Dan around 1966 when he was serving on the board of San Diego Youth For Christ. He was a young man, in his early 30′s as I recall and he owned a radio station in town, KSON. A few years later KSON sponsored a talent competition called “Country Star” (an early version of “American Idol”) and by that time I had formed a band called Brush Arbor. We decided to enter the contest. There were more than 100 entries and we managed to make the cut to the finals, a show that was broadcast live on the radio. Contest judges included a producer from Capitol Records, a Billboard magazine executive, and several other people who I don’t remember. We won the contest that night and the producer from Capitol (Steve Stone) asked us if we would be interested in a record deal with Capitol. Needless to say, we were very happy to sign a record contract that would put us on the same label with Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and the Beatles.
After we were signed by Capitol, Dan offered to be our manager, and so we entered into an agreement with him which turned out to be very beneficial to us. Not only did he own KSON, but he had connections with the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Association and many other country music industry leaders. With Dan as our manager, our very brief career as country music stars really took off. We got Nudie Suits, started playing Vegas, making appearances on the Opry, touring with Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, the Everly Brothers, Marty Robbins, Waylon Jennings and the list goes on and on. I stayed on with the band for a couple of years before departing to continue my calling in youth ministry.
About the time I left Brush Arbor in 1974, we won the Academy of Country Music Award for Vocal Group of the Year. We received a nice trophy (presented to us by Kenny Rogers) and so we gave it to Dan to keep in his trophy case. Thirty years later, Dan organized a reunion of the band at his Wildcat Canyon Ranch where he presented each one of us with our own Academy of Country Music Award which he made possible. Mine is prominently displayed in my home.
In 1975 I had a conversation with Dan regarding bluegrass music. I mentioned that there were quite a few bluegrass music fans living in San Diego (me, for one) and I suggested that it might be a good idea to feature some bluegrass now and then on his radio station. He thought it was a great idea and he asked me if I would like to do it. I was completely surprised by the offer because I had no radio experience at all. (I thought radios worked because there were little tiny people inside.) Dan just grinned and said “Oh, anybody can be a DJ. We’ll show you how.” Ha. I have since learned that professional radio personalities are incredibly talented people. I still haven’t got the hang of it and I’ve been doing a weekly show on KSON now for almost four decades.
Dan sold KSON back in the eighties to Jefferson-Pilot Communications, who then sold the station to Lincoln Financial Media. I’ve had lots of bosses and program directors at KSON over the past four decades. But each year on the anniversary of my show, I like to give credit to Dan for its success and longevity. He made it all possible. In 2001, on our 25th anniversary extravaganza at the East County Performing Arts Center in El Cajon, I honored Dan by presenting him with a commemorative Deering Banjo. He always wanted to learn how to play one but I don’t think he ever found the time to work on his banjo licks.
So goodbye old friend, and thank you. Thank you for believing in me and providing me with some of the most memorable and significant moments of my life. You will always be remembered with great fondness and respect.
After being assured that receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award doesn’t necessarily mean your lifetime is over, I was pleased to accept a LAW from Youth Specialties at their recent San Diego National Youth Workers Convention. From what I hear, this was the first of many that will be given to individuals who have contributed in some significant way to field of youth ministry. In my case, I co-founded the organization giving out the award, so I suppose that’s the secret to getting the first one! Regardless, it was a very special night for me and I am very grateful to the staff of Youth Specialties and all who contributed to making it happen. The presentation was captured on video and posted by Youth Specialties on YouTube as well as their web site.
After the presentation, several people said they were surprised to hear that I gave up a promising career in music to pursue youth ministry. Actually, that’s not quite true. I tried to explain it in the interview but I’m not sure I explained it very well. So let me explain it a little better here.
First, I was in youth ministry before I ever started playing music. In fact, it was youth ministry that prompted me to take up music in the first place. As a Youth for Christ staff member in the 60′s, I was trying to figure out how to reach kids for Christ. Folk music was pretty popular at the time, so several of us learned to play guitars and banjos and we formed folk groups. Our YFC rallies became “hootenannies” and believe it or not, they were pretty cool.
My first group was a folk trio with my wife Marci and another YFC staff member Dave Sheffel called “The Accidents.” That was in 1966. I played bass. Later, I learned banjo and formed a bluegrass group with my brothers and wife Marci called The Rice Kryspies. We recorded a couple of albums and played for churches, youth groups and two summers at Forest Home Christian camp. I really got into bluegrass music and my obsession with the banjo kept growing, but it was a hobby, a part-time thing while I was working for YFC and doing youth ministry in my church.
I was still playing with the Rice Kryspies AND doing youth ministry when Mike Yaconelli and I started Youth Specialties in 1968.
Then, in 1972, my wife Marci contracted pregnancy and she had to quit playing bass with The Rice Kryspies. My brothers and I continued along with two new members of the band, Ken Munds and Dave Rose. We changed the name of the band to Brush Arbor. After winning a local radio station talent contest, we were signed by Capitol Records and before long we were hearing our music played on country radio stations. One thing led to another and we ended up on the Grand Ole Opry, doing some network TV shows, touring with people like Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins (my favorite) and then winning a couple of country music awards including Vocal Group of the Year (Academy of Country Music). We had a manager by then and a booking agent, both of whom were expecting us to become the next big thing in country music. Capitol Records called us “The Voice of the New Country.”
All this happened very quickly and I have to admit, it was a whole lot of fun. But in December of ’73, while taping an NBC TV Special with Johnny Cash at Rockefeller Plaza in New York (on the same stage that later became the home of Saturday Night Live), I realized that I just couldn’t keep on playing with Brush Arbor. Our booking agent was telling us that he was going to put us on the road for over 300 dates per year. Youth Specialties was just getting some traction. My son Nathan was two years old and needed a daddy at home. I was torn between too many things and putting too much stress on my wife and partners in ministry. So I quit the band in New York. Our manager told us (while we were in New York) that he had booked us on the Hee Haw TV show and wanted us to fly to Nashville immediately to tape three shows. But I just couldn’t go. I had already made plans to go from New York to Atlanta to meet up with Mike Yaconelli and Denny Rydberg for a YS event.
So, I told the band I didn’t want to hold them back and they would need to replace me, which they eventually did. I played out a string of dates in Las Vegas in early 1974 but that was the end of my music career. Brush Arbor ended up going through a few more personnel changes after I left and while they never became the next big thing in country music, they had a good run and ended up being a top Christian country band. My brother Jim kept it going for quite a few years and they made some really good records.
I never felt like I gave up anything to do youth ministry because (1) youth ministry was what I had been called to do all along and (2) I was a very mediocre banjo player. I knew I would never make it as a professional musician. I would have starved to death.
But the time I spent with Brush Arbor (and since then, playing with other bands and doing my radio show) has been wonderful. I’m very blessed and thankful to God for all the opportunities that he has given me to do what I love to do.
In case you aren’t familiar with Bill Monroe, you are most certainly familiar with the music he created. He was a singer and mandolin player from Kentucky who in 1939 formed an ensemble called the Blue Grass Boys (named to honor his home state) and after experimenting with various combinations of instruments and vocal styles, he found success with his legendary 1945 combo which included Lester Flatt on guitar, Earl Scruggs on the banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Cedric Rainwater playing bass. The early recordings and performances by that band took the world of country music by storm and spawned dozens, then hundreds, and today thousands of bluegrass bands all over the world.
Bill Monroe wrote hundreds of songs and instrumentals which form the canon of bluegrass music today. He single-handedly established the mandolin as a solo instrument in American popular music. He was one of the early inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was the first inductee into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, and he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many of the early rockabilly stars of the 1950’s like Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley were huge Bill Monroe fans. Presley’s first single was Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Well, I could go on and on about Bill Monroe (“On and On” is the title of a Monroe song, by the way), but I’ll let you look him up on Wikipedia or something. I’m just honored that I had a chance to meet him and work with him on a few occasions. One of my prized possessions is a photo of him that he signed for me which hangs on my wall at home.
When I was in the band Brush Arbor, I’ll never forget the night in 1973 when we opened for Monroe at the world famous Palomino Club in North Hollywood. The room was packed with celebrities and many of my musical heroes at the time who had come to hear Monroe, not us. I remember seeing Clarence White of the Byrds sitting up close and Carl Jackson, who was playing banjo with Glen Campbell at the time. Backstage I chatted with Del Shannon who had hit songs like “Runaway” and “Hats Off to Larry.” Of course, the biggest thrill was hanging out with Big Mon himself, who was bluegrass music royalty. I remember just how kind he was to us despite the fact that we had drums and steel guitar in the band (a no-no to most bluegrass fans). He gave us an open invitation to play at any of his bluegrass festivals around the country. We did get to play at one of them.
When we took the stage at the Palomino, we kicked off with our version of “Proud Mary” which is really really fast. I kicked it off on the banjo and about four bars into the song, my thumb pick just popped off my thumb and flew out somewhere in the audience. I was stunned. Everyone looked at me like “what are you going to do now?” and I really didn’t know. My brother Jim grabbed a thumb pick out of his stash on stage and I was back in business right away and the song went on. But I broke into a flop sweat that just soaked my rhinestone-covered Nudie suit. Sooo embarrassing. I never got my thumb pick back.
Happy birthday Bill Monroe! Thank you for the amazing music you created which absolutely swept me off my feet almost 50 years ago as a teenager and which continues to bless my life in so many ways today. I thank God for you and remember you with deep appreciation on your centennial year.
If you would like to hear my radio show which I did Sunday night (9/11) to celebrate Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday, go to www.kson.com/bluegrass. It will be there for about a month so if you are reading this after October 15, you probably won’t be able to hear it.
Here’s a fun sing-a-long that my old band Brush Arbor did with Johnny Cash and his family (Mother Maybelle Carter, June Carter Cash, Anita Carter and his daughters Rosie and Rosanne) on an NBC-TV special in December, 1973. We’re on the back row wearing our “Nudie Suits.” The clip opens with a quick shot of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, who was also on the show.
There are more clips posted on YouTube from the TV show including “Daddy Sang Bass” which features the entire cast of the show and close-ups of Brush Arbor (Ken Munds, Dave Rose, Dale Cooper, Jim Rice, Joe Rice and me.) Larry Gatlin is also standing with us (in the middle) and there are some fun shots of Carl Perkins and Johnny’s brother Tommy Cash.
There are also two musical performances by Brush Arbor from this TV show: “Brush Arbor Meeting” (introduced by Johnny Cash) and “Let’s All Go Down to the River” featuring instrumental solos by each of us and Dave Rose’s famous “balancing on the bass” routine.