Johnny Cash's America grew out of a politically tinged discussion between the documentary's directors, author Robert Gordon and producer/director Morgan Neville. The presidential primary races were just getting started, and both men were worried. They wondered how much longer a house divided against itself might stand.
"We were discussing how divided the nation was," Gordon says. "[That] led us to discussing figures around whom the nation could unify ... [and that] led us to Johnny Cash." The idea for a documentary was born.
"What interested us most was that people who could agree on little else could agree on their respect for Johnny Cash," Gordon says. "So we set out in this show not to profile Cash and tell his life story but to use Cash as a lens through which we could examine America and leadership in America."
Gordon was looking for someone to finance a film based on Can't Be Satisfied, his biography of Muddy Waters, when he first encountered Neville, who had come to Memphis to develop a documentary about Sun Studio founder Sam Phillips for A&E's popular Biography series. They hit it off right away, and Can't Be Satisfied aired on PBS in 2003. The creative duo have since collaborated on a variety of projects, including Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story and Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan, an off-the-wall documentary about Cowboy Jack Clement.
Cash lived his life in the public eye, and the years following his death have witnessed numerous biographies, anthologies, and tributes, including the Academy Award-winning feature film Walk the Line. Gordon says he wanted to do something completely different.
"We found ourselves having to constantly fight the pull toward biography," Gordon says of his struggle to create an essay rather than a biography. "We consciously fought the questions about Cash's life and coaxed ourselves and our subjects and our film toward a more philosophical, meditative place."
As an example of what to expect, Gordon describes a scene in which members of the Cash clan gathered in Dyess, Arkansas, to celebrate Cash's life and achievements. The group met around the grave of Jack Cash, Johnny's brother, whose premature death haunted and inspired the artist throughout his life and career. After a prayer and a moment of silence the family spontaneously began to sing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
"It just happened," Gordon says. "And it was incredibly moving."
In addition to family members, Gordon and Neville talked to liberal politicians, conservative politicians, musicians, and ordinary folks in order to get some sense of why Cash's appeal is so universal.
"Lamar Alexander told us that Cash wore black so we could project ourselves onto him and see whatever we wanted to see," Gordon says. "Snoop Dogg talked about how gangsta [Cash] was."
It's no spoiler to pre-announce Gordon's personal conclusion, which is intriguing but unsurprising: America loves Cash because he never hid his flaws or tried to be somebody he wasn't.
Johnny Cash's America was produced by A&E and features commentary by Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Tim Robbins, and Kris Kristofferson.
Johnny Cash's America screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, October 15th.