I never got to meet the Man in Black, but I started playing music because of him. One of my earliest musical memories was when I would spend time with my grandparents listening to their record collection. Johnny Cash was one of their favourites, and he quickly became mine.
When I got my first guitar, I only played Johnny Cash songs. They were easy, and I could sing in the same key as him (granted, I was singing a complete octave higher). As I would dive deeper into his music, and my grandparents' record collection, I felt like I got to know Johnny personally -- which is why it hit me hard when his wife, June Carter, passed away.
She was Johnny's true love, so I wrote him a letter to express my condolences. It was the end of May in 2003, and I was about to celebrate my 13th birthday.
I knew Johnny Cash lived in Hendersonville, Tennessee, because of a biography I watched, so when I scanned through the old 45's and 33's, and I came across a "Fan Club" address in Hendersonville, I figured it would be worth a shot to send him a card and a letter.
I don't recall what I wrote in the letter -- I likely just told him how much his music meant to me, and how sorry I was for his loss. After the letter was in the mail, I completely forgot about the whole thing as the months went by.
Between May and September of 2003, I recorded my first CD. It was a collection of country classics called "Keepin' it Country." Of course I featured some Johnny Cash songs on the CD -- "Tennessee Flat Top Box" and "Big River" -- and to celebrate the album, I decided to organize a CD Release Party in my hometown hall in Glendon, Alberta.
On Friday, Sept. 12, 2003, my Mom woke me up. I didn't have to go to school that day, because I had to prepare for my big CD Release Party that night. As I awoke, my mom said, "Brett, I have some good news, and I have some bad news."
I asked for the good news first.
Mom said, "Your concert sold out this morning." (Meaning, there were 500 people coming to my CD Release Party in a community of 350 people!)
"What's the bad news?" I asked.
"Johnny Cash passed away this morning."
I cried. I felt empty. I had never really lost a family member yet, so this news really hit me hard.
I decided that I was going to do a tribute to Johnny Cash that night. I dressed all in black, and had a tribute medley ready to close out the show.
My dad, a school teacher, came home from work and went straight to the hall to help us set up chairs and prepare for the concert. He handed me a large yellow envelope that he received in the mail that day. When I opened it, I couldn't believe my eyes.
It was a signed 8x10 photo of Johnny Cash. It was a press photo from the waist up. He was, naturally, dressed in black, and his long, white hair was slicked back. He looked old. Written in a black marker, the photo read, "To Brett, Jesus First, Johnny Cash."
I don't know if he autographed that photo for me months ago, or if he signed it a few days before his passing. All I know is that I received the best gift and the most incredible keepsake I'll ever get in my life on the very same day my hero passed away.
I still love the "Man in Black", I still perform many of his songs, and I look at that framed photo every day.