Watching Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson perform "The Highwayman" during the Grammys last week, signature song of their country supergroup, The Highwaymen, conjured up the one lone memory I have of the band when I met fellow Highwayman, Johnny Cash, and sold him a Nirvana record.
I was working at Music World at The Eaton Centre in Toronto back in 1995. The Highwaymen were in town supporting their "The Road Goes On Forever" album, if memory serves me correctly. Admittedly, I have never been a country music fan although I can say I do own more than a few Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash records. They, above anyone else in country music, seemed to embrace a bit of the ole Rock & Roll spirit that made it easier for me to relate. So, imagine my surprise when I saw Johnny Cash casually stroll by the store with his wife, June Carter, as I stood at my post as retail zombie greeter.
I tore out of the record store like either someone had stolen a barrel of merchandise or that I had finally come to my senses and quit that job. I caught up to the couple in front of Shopper's Drug Mart (Canada's Rite-Aid/CVS) and instead of identifying myself as a fan, engaging in courteous small talk like a non-crazy person, I immediately started to list off all the albums I owned by him -- an albeit measly list but impressive enough to have him look at this kid dressed in his best Lollapalooza-come-lately uniform and ask -- "Do you work there?", pointing to the Music World signboard. I nodded a yes and both he and Carter exchanged what seemed to be commiserative glances. I think Johnny Cash thought I worked on commission and was trying to woo him with a personal sales pitch. Um...no but how can you not love him for thinking it?
I'll never forget the motherly look June Carter gave me when she said to Cash, "I'll go here and wait." Here meaning "The Nature Company" across the mall -- a now defunct retail chain that sold scientific trinkets and novelty items while Cash went "record shopping" with this strange kid-fan he thought he was kindheartedly helping out. Maybe they both thought the self-titled American Recording with Rick Rubin he had just released the year before was having its effect on the alternative nation but to be honest, I hadn't even heard the album yet.
The look on my manager Tom's face will be forever burned in my mind when little old me walked back into the store with the one and only Johnny Cash in tow. What Cash asked me next blew my mind.
"Have you heard of Nirvana? I'm going to be doing a song with them for a Willie Nelson tribute album and want to know what they sound like."
Did I? I was just about their number one fan although their rise to superstardom and recent heartbreaking suicide of their singer, Kurt Cobain, had turned them into everyone's band, not just mine anymore. I wanted to sit Cash down and discuss their discography, album by album, but knew his time was precious since June Carter was waiting across the way looking at telescopes and solar system mobiles.
I grabbed the first Nirvana album I could see -- "MTV Unplugged In New York." The album was charting at the time and contained a lot of acoustic guitar which I thought would appeal more to Cash. After he bought it, he exchanged a few kind words with us and joined Carter.
For the rest of the day we basked in the few minutes he had spent with us. We even compared his autograph he had given us with the autograph on the back of one of his Cds the store stocked. Yup, it truly was Johnny Cash and the Willie Nelson song he spoke about ended up being "Time Of The Preacher" with Nirvana's Krist Novoselic for the "Twisted Willie" Willie Nelson tribute record.
Eight years later, I found myself on the road doing interviews for our band in a hotel room somewhere. All I can remember was a journalist from a Guitar magazine telling me that Johnny Cash had just died and asking if I had any thoughts on the matter. I told her this story and got the feeling she didn't believe me. I didn't blame her. Why would anyone? Even before his passing, Cash had been deified to the point where an innocuous story about him such as this would seem absurd. Despite there being no majestic entrance, no quotable proverb, no memorable exit, only a guy buying a compact disc, the whole story is true.
My greatest Rock & Roll moment is when I met the "Man In Black" (wearing a casual white fall jacket) at the mall.
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