Archive, Essays, New Series

Gill Dennis: “Unchained”

In which a screenwriter listens to Johnny Cash and considers the origins of a sound and in so doing sheds light on the subject of poetry.

This essay first appeared in the Fall 2006-Winter 2007 issue of Poetry Northwest.


The first time I met Johnny Cash some nine years ago he was staying with his wife, June Carter, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. I was researching what would eventually become the movie Walk the Line with James Keach, an old friend of theirs, who introduced me, then went off to talk with June. I took out legal pad and pen and asked John if he’d draw the floor plan of the house he’d grown up in on a small cotton farm in Arkansas. He went to work and spent ten minutes carefully drawing with a slightly palsied hand, putting the radio on the old library table in the living room, printing the names of his brothers and sister on their beds in the small four room shack. When he was done, he handed it over and said, “Nobody’s ever asked me to do this before.”

I said, “John, I’ve read everything I can about your childhood, everything you’ve written and said about your dad, but I have no idea who he was.”

In a second, he was on his feet, pacing. Agitated. “You want to know about my daddy? I’ll tell you about my daddy. When my daddy was on his deathbed and said he’d made his peace with God he was still a racist. Do you think that’s possible, to have made your peace with God and still be a racist? Well, he was. You want to know about my daddy? I’ll tell you about him. His brother was a country sheriff in Louisiana, who didn’t want black people in his cells. When a warrant would come in for a black man, my uncle would deputize my daddy and they’d go out to the man’s house, knock on the door, and ask, ‘Is Leroy in?’ And when Leroy appeared, they’d take him around back and shoot him. That’s who my daddy was.” John studied me. He looked down at the tape recorder. “Is that thing on?”


“Turn it off.”

I did. “So this is not going to be a story about ‘When will I be dead and rid of the sins my father did?” I asked.

“I hate that.” He was shaking. I was a complete stranger and he told me this. He then quoted a passage from the Bible, which says that when God forgives you, your sin leaves his mind. It no longer exists there. Period. It is gone.

I wanted to say, “But that’s for God, John, not for you and me.” But I said nothing, because he appeared so conflicted and angry. There was reluctance in John’s voice at that moment, in the very sound of his voice–reluctance that came from personal experience and emotional memories he didn’t wish to revisit, but had to.

The other person John was guarded about was his brother Jack, who died at the age of fourteen when John was twelve. John was clear about the fierceness of the loss, but when I asked exactly what the loss was, he became vague. Jack was good and wanted to be a preacher when he grew up. He was brave and stood up to bullies. What bullies? “Oh, you know, on the playground at school.” We eventually discovered that John’s dad was a psychotic drunk who would beat John’s mother and sisters. Jack was the only one who would stand up to him on their behalf: “You hit her again, you’re going to have to come through me.” John’s dad would not touch the boys. He’d always walk away from Jack. When Jack died there was no longer anyone to protect the women in the house.

Jack was killed operating a saw cutting fence posts in the basement of the local school. He’d been sent to cut posts that Saturday because his father needed twenty-five cents to buy a can of Prince Albert tobacco. He somehow got yanked up onto the blade. It gook him ten days to die.

When, in later years, people asked John why he wore black, he was evasive. Recently, a friend discovered an article about a Tennessee tailor who dressed John’s generation of country and rock and roll singers. The tailor told how one day John came into his store with a can of Prince Albert and said, “I want a black suit just like the guy on the can here.”


With John, there was an argument going between revelation and concealment. The first thing he told you was something he didn’t want anyone to know. He took you in with his carelessness. In his best singing, loose handling often supplies the edge. He shot a man in Reno “just to watch him die.” He shoots Delia a second time with not altogether hidden mirth because he didn’t want to see her suffer. He’s triumphantly going to write “a tear-stained letter” to a former love, a letter he hopes will not make her so sad she “goes down suicide.” He can’t stand sentimentality. A shit-kicker, he sees “Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth” to the Redemption Train. There is a profound sympathy for “the soldier getting over the war.” The voice is approachable, personal, and convincing. He throws the words away as if he were in the presence of something dreadful, unspeakable. The feeling in his voice goes deeper into the words than perhaps their meaning. The feeling makes the words relevant. You feel the connection of yourself to another, to others.

In Arkansas, when he was twelve, Johnny Cash’s mom sent him to a singing teacher. The teacher sent him home. because she felt he had a voice that training would ruin. It makes you wonder what was so distinct about his voice even then. The voice most of us know from recordings is casual, deep, tough, and powerful. If John were in the next room you would recognize his voice, even if you couldn’t hear what he was saying. You would make his voice out in a crowd. In a bar when someone plays one of his songs on the jukebox, you recognize him immediately. Perhaps, the teacher heard that John sang the words to the song as if they were his own and feared training would make him conscious of his voice in a way that might separate him from it. His voice came from his center, not his throat.

The casualness of his voice gives it a striking intimacy. It is close to you. The voice encloses you. It sometimes sounds as if it is inside you. Once in Hendersonville, Tennessee, going out to John’s farm in his truck, I asked him what he’d sing in the fields picking cotton with his family. He thought a moment and then sang “My Grandfather’s Clock,” the whole thing from beginning to end with great care about a clock that “kept its time with a soft and muffled chime… / And it stopped…short, never to go again, when the old man died.” He sang quietly in that deep voice. It was as if he was speaking to you, you alone in the car with him, finding his way into the song to get it to you, as if there was no one else in the world but the two of you. It was riveting. What you wanted was everyone you love to be there. You thought, I wish I could make a few phone calls here. When he took the pause between “stopped” and “short,” it was as if he were telling you something. The silence pulled you in. He knew that, as in poetry, I suppose, silence is a part of the equation. If there is no accompaniment, then silence is the accompaniment. These silences felt full. He turned the song on the listener. You feel your whole life pause, waiting to turn on the next word.

When I asked what he sang to his first wife, Vivian, on their first date, he sang to me “Faraway Places.” The words go, “Those faraway places I’ve been reading about / In a…book…that I…took…from a shelf.” The slight pauses he took, and they were ever so slight, must have set her dreaming. He used the silences to create an opening.


When John sang well, he let the emotions, which the words evoked in him, color the sound he made. He could have been speaking. You know how when you talk, you follow the words you say? When you speak to someone, you don’t think twice about what you’re going to say. You’re following your voice. So John follows the words of the song and their melody and responds to them from a neutral place. His offhandedness makes for the great intimacy. In the Folsom Prison recording, after he sings the line, “I’d been in the arms of my bet friend’s wife,” he suddenly chuckles and asks, “Did someone applaud?” Someone had. The listener was as present to John as the song.

The times John’s voice loses its impact is when he feels the song’s meaning is greater than he is. When he takes the moral high ground, when he would be certain of the truth as something more than, in Beryl Bainbridge’s words, “one-sided and a lie waiting to be found out.” When John becomes sanctimonious singing traditional gospel or pontificates as he does in his songs about the plight of the American Indian, he becomes disconnected from the listener. Jacques Lacan might have had Johnny Cash in mind when he said, “The reason we go to poetry is not for wisdom, but for the dismantling of wisdom.”

When John sang well, there was that reluctance about the voice, which perhaps accounted for much of its power. I don’t want to go there, it says. If you want me to, I will, but I don’t want to. So the pattern of his speaking voice is staccato and short: “Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.” When John tackles a song containing tension, something he feels firsthand, some troubling bewilderment, and tells you about it, there’s the same immediate reluctance in his voice. When you ask someone to tell you an emotional experience, you find the same hesitancy. When you ask someone to tell you the saddest or most shameful thing they ever experienced, the moment they think of it, they smile, because they’re trying to get as far away from that emotion as possible. Otherwise they won’t be ale to tell the story. They try to relax. “I’m going to talk to you about this, and it’s not going to upset me.” The words, as they hear them, bring emotion; it is not something they wring deliberately from within.

When Johnny Cash goes to those places he’s experienced in songs, goes there with the sound of his voice–the failure of love, the violence against women, or murder, drugs, and crime, or the question of redemption (as in the American Recordings)–he finds common ground with everyone, and his voice is authentic. These last recordings are perhaps the best ones he ever did. Their producer, Rick Rubin, apparently said, “All I want you to do, John, is come into a room with your guitar and sing the songs that mean something to you. Your favorite songs. You sing them and we’ll figure out what you need for accompaniment, to back you up. Whatever you want.” He wasn’t at the mercy of an arrangement, or other musicians. There was only his voice–the fantastic joy of its expression. Rubin was telling him to let his voice take the lead. john did and the words and music took up residence in our minds.


When I was growing up, my father would pass by my room where I was doing homework and mutter a line or two of poetry, such as: “Great Caesar’s bust is on the shelf / And I don’t feel so well myself.” Or, “I grow old…I grow old… / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers roll.” Or, “Candy is Dandy. / But liquor is quicker.” Or, “O, I have been to Ludlow Fair / And left my necktie God knows where.” Or, “The light that lies in women’s eyes / And lies and lies and lies.” I remember these lines. I remember the voice speaking them. I remember the wry intimations of mortality and danger. The same occurs with John’s best songs: “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine…” “I’m like a soldier getting over the war…” “Oh, I am weak / Oh, I know I am vain / Take this weight from me / Let my spirit be unchained…”

The words and music fall over us as if they are new. His voice ensnares a feeling, compresses it, and makes it accessible for an instant, reminding us how vast, hard, and uncontainable the world is. The words stick. They won’t go away: solace of a sort, almost a cure.

Gill Dennis (1914-2015) was a film director, screenwriter and teacher whose writing credits include the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, with James Mangold.

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