There’s a statement at the end of Marshall Grant’s excellent autobiography that really struck me. He said that he still dreamed of J. R. Cash, the friend and fellow musician that he’d known. Laughing together, fishing together, and creating music. A lot of people asked about Johnny Cash, Marshall continued, and that he didn’t know who that was. He knew J. R..
Marshall Grant was Johnny Cash’s friend and musical cohort from the beginning, and even before then. Grant worked at a auto mechanic shop in Memphis, Tennessee in 1954. When Grant and Cash were introduced by mutual friends, they began jamming together in Marshall’s living room. Grant worked with another mechanic, Luther Perkins, that also played guitar, so he also joined in. All three were still learning their way around four chords. When they realized that three guitarists didn’t hold a rhythm as well, Grant bought a stand-up bass. It didn’t matter that Grant had never played one before. It just seemed, and sounded, like the right thing to do.
Cash would later say that the sound of himself and “The Tennessee Two” (As Perkins and Grant would later be known) was there within the first eight bars they played together. That sound, the sparse melody and moody rhythm, could’ve only come from those three men. They learned to play their instruments together, they write to create songs together, they became a band, together. And Cash learned to become a frontman, in front of that sound. Sure, Sam Phillips could have paired Johnny with another band, or even Elvis Presley’s band, and it might’ve sounded good. But it would not have sounded like Johnny Cash. It would not have had THAT sound.
Cash also learned to write to the sound of that band. Listen to how many of Cash’s songs are built around Grant’s basslines (“I Walk The Line” is a great example). Cash also relied on Grant to keep the tours, and the band going, even when Cash himself was sometimes off the rails. Grant did all of that for 26 years, leaving in 1980 when Cash’s drug relapse got to be too much to handle. Cash was not the same for years to come, but Grant and Cash stayed friends, sharing that sound, and shared experiences for the rest of their lives.
I never got to see Marshall Grant, but I saw him speak at Cash’s memorial concert in 2003. His speech was remarkable, an unscripted outpouring of love, happiness and sadness. It seems oddly appropriate that Grant passed away last week at Cash’s boyhood home of Dyess, Arkansas, while preparing to play a benefit concert. As Cash came from there, so the last living member of the Tennessee two left this earth from there.
When someone like Johnny Cash becomes as much of an icon as he did, the myth often takes over the reality. We see the myth as a solitary figure, and those who helped to forge the icon get lost in the shadows. But there is no lead role without the supporting characters, for they help to make the icons who we see. On stage, and on record. Marshall Grant was more than that. He was a friend, steadying force, and co-creator is the music and mythology. We, like J.R., owe him a lot of thanks.
August 11, 2011