If it weren’t for driving by this sign on my recent trip to California, there is a lot about Johnny Cash I probably wouldn’t know.Seeing the sign prompted me to find out when he lived there and it was then that I discovered that it was basically the start of a pretty dark period of his life, a period I guess I figured must have existed, at least in the songs, if not in real life. But it was real life and it was deeper and longer than what I had assumed.
On the heels of success with such hits as “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” the 26-year-old moved to California in 1958 with his eye on Hollywood stardom. He bought Johnny Carson’s old home in Encino and for three years all went well.
It didn’t last. With his dreamed-of movie career in a shambles, a drug habit starting, and marital life tense, he sought to make a new start in 1961 with a move to Casitas Springs with then-wife Vivian and his three daughters. The hilly, arid farming community is some 75 miles up the coast from Los Angeles.
That didn’t work. He spent months away from home, avoiding confrontation. He took up with various women, including June Carter, who joined his touring group in 1962. His marriage finally ended in 1967.
This Los Angeles Times article sums it up: “One of the most vivid childhood memories of Cash’s two oldest daughters, Rosanne and Kathy, was watching their mother, Vivian, puffing anxiously on a cigarette as she stared through the living room window of their Casitas Springs home on those rare nights when she thought her husband might actually be coming home. Vivian imagined him in the arms of June Carter, or dead somewhere of a drug overdose, and she prayed to see the headlights in the driveway that would prove her wrong. On most nights, Vivian gave up around 1 a.m. and tried to grab a few hours sleep before getting the girls ready for class at St. Catherine-by-the-Sea elementary school.”
Or, as Ojai Life more succinctly puts it: “In 1961, the country star built his dream house in Casitas Springs. Then he spiraled out of control.”
The ensuing years, extending into the 1990’s, were full of drugs, fights, overdoses, car crashes, a controversial forest fire, even boycotts from a white supremacist group, and finally, redemption. At one point, guitarist Luther Perkins advised Cash’s minders that whenever the star was on the ropes: “Let him sleep for 24 hours. If he wakes up, he’s alive, if he doesn’t, he’s dead.”
His life, in short, became a country song. If you’re interested in all the details, try “Johnny Cash — The Life,” by Robert Hilburn.