On the cover of his autobiography, Marshall Grant is hard to pick out. You’d expect him to be the focus of the cover photo, but that’s Johnny Cash. As he so often was in real life, Grant is the guy at far left, almost slipping off the edge of the cover and three-quarters hidden by his own instrument, an upright bass.
Not many autobiography covers relegate their subject to the background, but it’s an appropriate image for a book whose title is I Was There When It Happened: My Life with Johnny Cash (Cumberland House, 2006). Cash had called his own memoir Cash: The Autobiography (Harper Collins, 1997), and that made sense, because he was the center of his own life and of his own life story. In important ways, he was also the center of Grant’s life and, of course, of Grant’s book. The title is an accurate reflection of Grant’s story as he tells it.
For those who don’t recognize his name, Grant was Cash’s bassist from 1954 to 1980, a founding member of the Tennessee Two and later the Tennessee Three. He also served as Cash’s road manager for most of that time. Other than Cash himself, there was literally nobody better suited to tell Cash’s story, because it was also his own: Drummer W.S. Holland didn’t arrive on the scene until 1960, guitarist Luther Perkins died in a tragic fire in 1968 and neither of Cash’s wives and neither of his major producers (Sam Phillips and Don Law) shared as much of his prime years as Grant did. For 26 years Grant was onstage at every performance Cash did—and at a fair number that he didn’t show up for—and was heard in nearly every recording Cash made in that time.
In other words, Grant’s memoir, written with Chris Zar, is a must for anyone who cares about Cash and his music. An intriguing question is how accurate it is—not so much in the facts, which seem to be reliable, but rather in its portraits of Cash and of Grant himself.
The title of the book, drawn from a 1957 Cash hit that also had been the first song that Cash, Perkins and Grant played in their audition for Phillips at Sun Records, is distinguished by its humility. Grant might have gone with “I Made It Happen” or “I Helped It Happen” or even “It Wouldn’t Have Happened Without Me,” but instead he simply presents himself as a witness, someone who was there for some remarkable events in the history of American music.
That tone runs throughout the book. Grant makes no claims for his proficiency on the bass, and in fact emphasizes how little he or Perkins knew about their instruments in the band’s early days. He presents himself as a hard-working, detail-oriented road manager, but makes no effort to come across as a behind-the-scenes mastermind. He stresses Cash’s genius, both as a singer and as a songwriter, and praises Perkins’ eventual skills as a guitarist, but doesn’t represent himself as anything more than a guy who was there, working hard, the whole time.
He also presents himself as a humble, Christian man with virtually no ego of his own. He makes a point of closing the curtains on the womanizing of Cash, Perkins and others in the Cash entourage (which had grown to dozens of people by the 1970s), other than to make clear that he himself was always true to his loving wife, Ella, despite his decades on the road. He also tells many stories in which his friends are, obviously, drunk or high to some degree, but primly avoids anything really degrading or disparaging. It isn’t that this wasn’t part of what happened, Grant says, but he doesn’t like talking about those sorts of goings-on, so he won’t.
The one exception to this rule concerns Cash’s drug abuse. Anyone who saw the film Walk the Line (2005) and buys into its happy ending—set in 1968, with the womanizing druggie Cash redeemed by the love of a good woman—will find Grant’s story shocking. According to the bassist, Cash’s marriage to June Carter was a troubled one, and Cash didn’t really kick his addiction to pills until 1970, with the birth of his last child, John Carter Cash. Moreover, that respite lasted only until 1977, after which Cash was as drug-impaired as he’d ever been.
Grant’s treatment of this subject is essential to his overall thesis: Cash, he argues, was a legitimately good man, a Dr. Jekyll who, from the late 1950s onward, was transformed into an erratic, thoughtless and often cruel Mr. Hyde by his dependence on alcohol, barbiturates and amphetamines.
While recounting endless examples of Cash’s awful conduct toward his colleagues, his fans, other musicians, his family and, of course, Grant himself, the bassist again and again insists that it was the drugs talking, not Cash. His final break with Cash—which took place in 1980 and involved Cash firing him, Grant uncovering Cash’s embezzlement of joint funds and a series of lawsuits that ultimately were settled out of court (the two would reconcile, on a personal level, in the late 1990s)—he blames entirely on Cash’s renewed spiral into drug use.
This approach presents Grant himself as a generous, even courtly guy who always looks on the bright side of everything and everybody. (Virtually nobody in the book comes off badly, except occasionally June Carter Cash, who is depicted as a loyal wife, a good friend and a raging shopaholic.) However, it gives him the freedom to tell many stories that depict Cash, in particular, as a selfish pig who uses and discards the people around him, treating Grant himself as little more than a servant (specifically a chauffeur: Apparently Cash and Carter weren’t comfortable with anyone but Grant driving them to out-of-town gigs, seeing to their luggage, making their hotel and restaurant reservations (whenever possible, Grant arranged for them to be comped) and generally acting as their personal concierge).
It’s all very well to say, “John was a good and generous man, it was only the drugs which made him mean,” but Cash comes across as almost monstrous, a huge talent welded to a huge ego and not much consideration for anyone else on earth (especially his first wife and their four daughters). Regardless of how Grant presents it, it’s hard not to see Cash as a mean man who happened to take drugs. At the very least, he comes across as a man so enmeshed in star entitlement that he lost touch with the basic elements of humanity.
Is this a deliberate ploy on the part of Grant and Zar, a way of writing a tell-all biography while keeping Grant’s own skirts clean? Is it a means of getting back at Cash (who had died three years before) for a lifetime of slights while never saying a word against him as such? Is Grant, who clearly possessed exceptional skill in navigating the music business (after Cash fired him, Grant spent the next 20 years as road manager for the Statler Brothers, ending only with their retirement in 2002), much smarter, cannier and harder-nosed than he chooses to admit?
I don’t know, and really there’s nobody to say. Grant himself died in 2011 and, after a lifetime of keeping himself in the background, he left nobody to provide an alternative view of the bassist and his relationship with Cash. Plenty of other people have recorded their recollections of Cash, for the most part not inconsistent with Grant’s, but by the time Grant’s book was published Cash, Carter, Perkins, Phillips and Law were all gone. He’d been there when it happened, but by 2006 there weren’t many others who had.
His book is fascinating, even with his principled reticence to really dish the dirt. His perspective on the Cash phenomenon is from the inside and, if occasionally his angle leads to more than the average reader may desire on the art of booking large groups into hotels or the arcana of airline scheduling in the 1960s and 1970s, it also has the smack of reality to it. At a Johnny Cash concert, the fans were in ecstasy and the star often was out of his head, but the guy slapping the bass and making sure everyone checked out of the hotel on time was living in the real world.
That may be why the book’s most affecting scenes come early, though. In his accounts of a young appliance salesman named Cash sitting in a basement with three auto mechanics (steel guitarist Red Kernodle dropped out on the verge of the band’s breakthrough), trying to figure out which end of their instruments is up, as their wives sit upstairs in the kitchen and gossip, Grant has a tangible nostalgia for a moment when none of them knew anything about the music business except that it was out there and they wanted in.
They got in, and neither they nor the business were ever the same.