Shooter Jennings could barely see over a church pew when his father, country music legend Waylon Jennings, had a falling out with Shooter’s godfather — Waylon’s manager — and asked the little boy to pick himself a new one. Shooter chose a guy who always made him feel important — his dad’s friend and sometime bandmate Johnny Cash.
Meanwhile, a Vermont schoolgirl named Grace Potter who got the giggles over Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” would rediscover the artist as a young aspiring rock star when she heard Cash’s 2003 Rick-Rubin-produced remake of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt,” that would put a searing coda on Cash’s life and career when he passed away months after its release. And impact the now 29-year-old Potter long after she formed her critically-embraced indie band Grace Potter & The Nocturnals.
Now both are a part of Ovation’s Johnny Cash: Song by Song, an original six-part retrospective that frames the life of the complex pop culture icon through six of his best-known hits — “I Walk the Line” (1956), “Ring of Fire” (1963), “Jackson” (1967), “A Boy Named Sue” (1969), “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” (1970) and “Hurt.” Also interviewed throughout the series are Cash’s son John Carter, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Shelby Lynne, Marty Stuart, George Jones, Chris Isaak and others.
CGM: Shooter, you have such a unique perspective to offer the show…
Shooter Jennings: When I was 4 or 5 — I’m 33 now — is when The Highwaymen formed, so from a young age Cash’s family, Willie Nelson’s family, Kris’ family and our family were out on the road traveling together and doing these overseas tours, so our families bonded. [Cash] threw a roller-skating party for me and my friends at the Hendersonville skating rink. There’s a picture of my dad and him lacing up their roller skates. It’s pretty funny — bright neon pink and green roller skates.
CGM: What do you think of the songs that were ultimately selected?
Jennings: I think the choices are great because it’s like picking angles from which you view his life. Doing each of those songs is like setting up six different cameras, six different perspectives on his life. It’s a pretty brilliant way to deal with it, because you’re getting his personality, his life and you’re also getting that through the effect of the songs on these people in current pop culture. You’ve got everyone from [rapper] Yelawolf to the older guys — dudes who were peers of his.
Grace Potter: When I was a kid I loved “A Boy Named Sue,” because I’m from Vermont and there were all kinds of kids in school that had ridiculous names. There were boys named Tristan and Ramsey and there were girls named Tristan and Ramsey. But later in high school was when I heard the Rick Rubin recording and it just reignited my fascination with Johnny Cash the man. … What other star in the whole world bares his soul like that — at his age, with his legacy — and shows all the cracks? Who does that? Nobody does that! Whose ego would allow themselves to be captured on film in such a haunting way? But he didn’t care about that. That was where he was in his life and he needed to share.
CGM: Do you think that is the downfall of the music industry now — quick cash is king and no one thinks about legacy?
Potter: I know that I do! But I think I am a bit of an exception. I want all music to be going in a direction where people are thinking long-term — “Am I going to want to play this song when I’m 65?” But to find that success and to find fulfillment all at once is a very hard thing — and Cash was the poster boy of that. Even when he was recording songs where the entire record company was pulling out their hair and saying, “Please don’t do that!” — he was doing something that he could look back on and say, “Yep, that’s how I wanted it. No regrets!” And I relate to that. I totally relate to that.
Jennings: We’re in a very odd time right now. There are bands making that music, but they’re not getting the exposure in the mainstream. But I think the mainstream is digging their hole so deep. I mean, even big artists like Tim McGraw doing these songs like “Truck Yeah” and stuff — these terrible songs. These guys are digging their holes so deep for the immediate payoff and at some point it’s going to collapse. The thought of these songs like “She’s A Corn Star” — these terrible pop-country songs — being played next to a Johnny Cash song? They’re in such different universes. It just doesn’t work. It will never work. Of course those guys probably cover Johnny Cash or Waylon onstage to make it seem like they’re country …
Johnny Cash: Song by Song premieres Sunday, Oct. 7 on Ovation