Luther Perkins was stone-faced, as usual, looking down at the borrowed Fender Telecaster cradled in his uncertain hands. The used guitar's volume and tone controls, bypassed by a previous owner, had never been repaired. So Perkins, a mechanic with a knack for fixing radios, laid his palm over the strings to dampen the Tele's piercing sound and started picking out a simple, chugging rhythm.
"The key of E looks like it would be all right," said Perkins' fellow grease monkey, Marshall Grant. He was fumbling with his own unfamiliar instrument, a $25 upright bass with the notes marked in adhesive tape. Grant had been strumming guitars since he was 10 years old, but he'd never touched an upright bass before, and he couldn't have even tuned the "big S.O.B." if a friend of a friend hadn't sketched an easy-to-read diagram the night before. J.R. Cash, the group's lead singer, chimed in, matching Perkins' percussive rhythm with an awkward lick played on the nicest, newest instrument in the room, a Martin acoustic borrowed from Grant. The overwhelmed bassist eventually fell into the groove, hunting and plucking away on his taped-up old beater.
"People think it took us 10 years to get that 'Johnny Cash sound,'" says Grant, describing the "god-awful" condition of the instruments, the general ineptitude of the players, and that historic day in 1955 when two pretty good mechanics and a not-so-good appliance salesman became a band. "We had that sound in the first eight bars we ever played together in our life. And then we started trying as hard as we could to get rid of it."
I Was There When It Happened, Grant's new book about his friendship and 25-year career with the Man in Black, is equal parts loving and brutal. Named for the gospel song Sam Phillips dismissed as unmarketable during the group's audition for Sun, it portrays Cash as a gifted performer, a sporadically giving friend, and a selfish, frequently cruel addict capable of robbing his closest companions.
"If I told everything that really happened, nobody would believe it," says Grant, who positions himself as Cash's partner, driver, mechanic, tour manager, counselor, and caretaker. "I kept it truthful, I kept it honest, and I kept it authentic, but I softened it, because the story of what happened to us is unbelievable enough. And really, some things were much, much worse than what the book says.
"What always amazed me about John was what a great man he was. He stood alone -- the greatest man I ever knew -- until the amphetamines took hold. June [Carter] came along in 1962, and we shared that burden for a while. She was an ally in trying to keep him alive and trying to keep things going. It was like all the other people around him just didn't care. Or they thought he was indestructible. Or they thought he would live forever."
Grant blinks his eyes frequently and sometimes furiously when he speaks. It's the result of eye problems that developed when he was 18 and learning the jeweler's trade in Memphis. A doctor recommended he leave that profession, so the young man took a Trailways bus home to Bessemer City, North Carolina, where he returned to his old job delivering ice.
"But there wasn't any opportunity there," Grant says. "And there still isn't." He couldn't stop thinking about his brother back in Memphis and a pretty girl he'd been forced to leave behind. "Me and Etta got engaged by mail and went down to the little old town where I live now, Hernando, Mississippi, and we got married."
Grant calls Etta his rock and credits her as the unheralded force that ultimately kept Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two (and later Three) together. While the marriages of Perkins and Cash fell apart, Etta encouraged Grant and inspired him to be there for their friends, whose lives were spiraling out of control.
To support his new wife, Grant took whatever work he could find, eventually landing at Automobile Sales, a dealership at 309 Union. He fixed cars, and when business was slow, he and co-worker Luther Perkins picked out gospel tunes. Another co-worker, Roy Cash, liked what he heard and promised to introduce Grant, Perkins, and Hawaiian steel player Red Kernodle to his guitar-crazy brother who'd be in Memphis just as soon as he got out of the Air Force.
"Roy told us his brother, J.R., could sing just like Hank Snow," Grant says.
"I was in the back of the shop at 309 Union one day, working on a car that was up on a lift. I saw two people come in, and one was Roy, so I figured the other one had to be his brother. I sort of got this funny feeling that run up the back of my leg and up my back. This sounds like a farfetched story, but it's the truth. 'Marshall, I want you to meet my brother, J.R.,' Roy said. And then J.R. said, 'I hear you do a little picking.' And I said, 'Very little.' And he said, 'Me too.'
"Luther was laying down on a floorboard, working on somebody's radio. So I kicked his foot and said that there was someone here he should meet. Instantly, it was like we were brothers, like we'd all three known each other for years."
Grant looks out a window at the emerging neighborhood where Marshall and Monroe converge. "A few years ago, I was convinced they would tear a lot of this area down," he says. Sitting in a cafe on Union, breaking pieces of bread into a bowl of chili, he remembers when the building he's sitting in was an appliance store. "I bought my first television here. Right here," he says emphatically, rolling back time. Before hooking up with Perkins and Cash, Grant walked past Sun Studio on his way to lunch every day.
"And I looked at that building and wondered what went on inside," he says. "I had no idea.
"Luther was a card. He was not a lead guitar player and couldn't play the melody of a song for nothing," Grant says, recalling when the success of Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two far outpaced the group's collective ability. "The first song we ever really put a lot of time into was 'Hey Porter,' and it took Luther three weeks, one note at a time, to figure out how to do the kickoff and the break. He wasn't ashamed of it, and I'm not ashamed to tell it. Because what he played came from his heart, his fingers, and his mind. But there's no doubt in anybody's mind who knows anything about music that if I'd moved to Nashville saying, 'I want to play bass,' I'd have never made it. And Luther? No way he could have been a session player. And John, even he was never what you'd call a good singer. But the chemistry of the three of us -- the way we learned to put these things together -- that's why, 52 years later, we're still sitting around talking about it. That's why today we're selling more records worldwide than we ever sold in our entire careers. It was our inability that made us what we were, not our ability. And I was happy. Luther was happy. We were all happy," Grant says.
And then they weren't. "Cry, Cry, Cry" hit the charts, the demand for new material and public appearances increased, and it never let up. The technically challenged band struggled to keep pace.
The band's struggles were romanticized in the 2005 Cash biopic Walk the Line. Grant praises Joaquin Phoenix's performance and describes Reese Witherspoon as "June Carter made over." But during shooting he stayed away from the set, partly because he knew he wasn't wanted and partly because he knew the people who didn't want him were right.
"I'd only bitch and complain," he says. "I'm for keeping history right. You can't fight Hollywood."
Grant questions the decision to make the film into a love story. June may have saved Johnny's life, but his self-destructive behavior didn't end when the movie suggests it did. Nothing, it seemed, could keep Cash off drugs for long, and the only love stories Grant tells in I Was There When It Happened involve little red pills, little white pills, and the big black beauties Red Sovine christened the "West Coast Turnaround."
At first, John and his wife Vivian were having a child a year -- Roseanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. When we'd go out on the road, my wife Etta would bring them over to our house or she would go over there. And it was like they had the whole burden of taking care of all of John's problems. And John didn't care. If he was 100 percent straight and didn't have any amphetamines in him, he cared. But that was seldom."
George Jones may have the reputation for getting high and missing shows, but there was a time when Cash could have given the old Possum a run for his money.
"Back when John was living with Waylon Jennings, that was a trip," Grant says. "About the only way I knew how to get him to the next show was to make him mad. If you could make him just as mad as hell he'd finally say, 'I'll show you. I'll be outside sitting on the steps when you get there.' And sure enough, he'd usually be sitting on the concrete in front of the hotel when we pulled up.
"You couldn't get John into the studio. And if you could, he wasn't going to be in any shape to perform. So I got with the people at Columbia and talked to them about recording live. The reason we recorded all those live shows -- Folsom Prison in 1968, Boy Named Sue, and San Quentin -- was because you couldn't get him into the studio. Sunday Morning Coming Down was recorded from the TV show.
"I'm no Superman," Grant says of the worst times, when he and Luther hadn't been paid in weeks, when tour buses were broken, retirement accounts plundered, a cashbox full of concert earnings torn open with a screwdriver, and Johnny Cash nowhere to be found.
"Don't think I didn't think about giving up. I called Etta a few times and said I'm coming home, because I couldn't stand it. But she convinced me that if we didn't keep doing what we were doing, everything would fall apart. That's how it was."
In his eponymous 1998 autobiography, Cash gives his dark side a name. He calls it "The Black Dog." Grant simply calls that person "Johnny," the hateful flipside of his friend J.R.
"He didn't know what a lie was when he was straight. And he didn't know what the truth was when he wasn't," Grant says. "When I finally got away from it all, it was a relief. 'To hell with it all,' I said. 'I'll stay home and play with my horses.'"
In 1980, the Tennessee Three dissolved, and Grant began managing the Statler Brothers. He says the transition was awkward at first, because the Statlers ran a tight ship and he'd grown accustomed to chaos.
Prior to joining the Statlers, Grant had received a letter from Cash listing the reasons his services were no longer required. He refuses to quote it because he doesn't think his old friend meant the things he said when he was out of his mind, but it's not difficult to divine at least some of the letter's content. In the autobiography Cash, Johnny suggests -- however diplomatically -- that Marshall and Luther had kept him from performing more complex material.
"We had a partnership. I had just as much of a right to write him a letter," Grant grumbles, the tone of his voice suggesting that the letter is still something of a sore spot.
In the 1980s, Grant found success with the Statlers. Cash, who'd scored hits in three decades with variations of his Memphis band, vanished from the charts. Except for songs recorded with the Highwaymen -- Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson -- the Man in Black was, in his own words, "invisible" throughout the Reagan era, and he wouldn't cut another significant track until 1994's American Recordings. This time around, it wasn't speed that had him sidetracked, it was the painkillers he'd begun taking after sustaining injuries in a freak ostrich attack.
Grant eventually sued Cash for spreading the rumor that he'd stolen $1 million and taken kickbacks on "The Johnny Cash Show" travel arrangements. The case was settled out of court, but the friendship was strained almost beyond repair.
"I wouldn't say there was animosity between John and myself, but we were two stubborn horses," Grant says.
And Grant says the drugs only got worse. "When John was forced to get off the road, I was in Nashville setting up for a Christmas show with the Statlers. I picked up a USA Today and read that he was having problems. I called June right away. She said 'Marshall, John says he wants to see you real bad.' I went over to the Baptist hospital, and when I came in, [John] asked for everybody else to leave. And I looked at him, and I said, 'Holy Christ.' I hadn't seen him in a long time, and he looked like the most worn-out person I'd ever seen. But we buried the hatchet right then and there. We buried it and threw it away. And from then on we stayed in close contact."
While sitting for a photo shoot at Sun Studio, Grant starts plucking away on the vintage upright bass he's been posing with. After a few lazy runs up and down the neck, he launches into "I Walk the Line."
"You know, the first time I ever played that line, John says, 'Marshall, what are you doing over there,' and I said, 'What do you think I'm doing, I'm learning how to play this big bastard.'" Grant says they wrote the rest of the song in the car that night.
"I'm not saying that on some of those long drives when I nodded off at the wheel that it wasn't tempting to just take a pill," Grant admits. And it certainly would have been easy. Cash took them. Luther Perkins, who died in 1968 after falling asleep with a lit cigarette in his mouth and a freshly caught fish in the sink, took them. Elvis took them. Jerry Lee took them.
"Of course, it was tempting," Grant says. "But it wasn't worth it. I saw what it was doing to John. And I always refused."
There's a suit that's hung in Grant's closet for more than 50 years. It's not the unassuming outfit he wore in 1955, when he auditioned for Sam Phillips. It's not one of those custom, rhinestone-studded confections hand-stitched by famed rodeo tailor Nudie Cohn. It's a modest ensemble mailed to Memphis from North Carolina by Grant's mother on the occasion of his 21st birthday. It's a symbol of the values he learned singing gospel songs with his family, a monument to promises kept, and a constant reminder of what it really means to walk the line. And it's blue, not black.
"My mama told me, 'Every one of my boys who can make it to 21 without a taste of alcohol, I'll get them a suit of clothes," Grant says, blinking to rid his eyes of caustic jeweler's dust that's been gone for 60 years. "I'm 78 years old and strong as a bull. I don't know the taste of beer, wine, or whiskey. I've never taken an illegal pill, never smoked a cigarette, and as of this past November, I've been married for 60 years. That's not too bad."