President Nixon became acquainted with Johnny Cash through their mutual friend Billy Graham. On 17 April 1970, at the President’s invitation, the Man in Black gave a concert for an invited audience in the East Room of the White House. Cash had married his Opry co-star —and member of the legendary Carter Family— June Carter in 1968, and they brought their six-week-old son John Carter Cash to Washington with them.
RN had suggested that they settle the infant upstairs in the Lincoln Bed Room while they rehearsed and performed. In his introduction, the President noted that, at the rate the baby was going and growing, he would probably be sleeping in the President’s bed some day.
The appearance became the subject of a press-created controversy after a member of the White House staff —presumably someone from the East Wing’s social office— wrote to Cash’s management asking if he would perform three of the most popular cross-over country music songs of the day: Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac,” Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” and Cash’s own “A Boy Named Sue.”
When the requests were passed along to Cash, he said that he would be glad to sing “Sue,” but that the other two songs presented a problem. That problem wasn’t their lyrics —which, as he later wrote, had become “lightning rods for antihippie and antiblack sentiment”— but the fact that he had no arrangements for them and wouldn’t have time to learn or rehearse them with his band before they had to leave for Washington.
“The request had come in too late,” he wrote. “If it hadn’t, then the issue might have become the messages, but fortunately I didn’t have to deal with that.”
But when word leaked to the press, the story was misreported and inflated into national headlines about the singer standing up to White House pressure. “CASH TELLS NIXON OFF!” was typical of the headlines. Time magazine harrumphed “That freedom of song persists, even at command performances, is reassuring.”
Nixon understood perfectly why I’d really turned him down, but he played it up anyway. “One thing I’ve learned about Johnny Cash,” he told the White House audience, “is that you don’t tell him what to sing.” It got a big laugh and made the press very happy.
Later that evening, the Nixons and the Cashes got to spend some time together.
After the performance he and Pat Nixon were the souls of hospitality. For almost two hours they gave us a tour around the whole White House, including their private living quarters —no other president has done that with me— and pointed out all the things they thought we’d find interesting. The president even had me lie down and stretch out on the Lincoln bed (and didn’t charge me, either). He was really kind and charming with us, and he seemed to be honestly enjoying himself. It was getting late, though, close to midnight, and I worried that we were taking up too much of his time. I brought that up.
“Mr. President, you’ve been very gracious to entertain us like this, but I know you have more important things to do. Don’t you think we’d better leave and let you get some rest?”
“Oh, no, don’t worry about it,” he replied jovially. “I’m going to Hawaii tomorrow to meet the Apollo 11 astronauts after they splash down, so I’ll sleep on Air Force One. I’ll be fine. I’ll get plenty of sleep.” So we relaxed and had a good time. We didn’t talk about politics at all.
The singer and the President found a real rapport. As Cash wrote, “he made a very good impression on me. I couldn’t detect any artifice or calculation about his friendliness and interest in me…”
For his performance in the East Room, Johnny Cash was joined by June Carter Cash, her Mother Maybelle, the Carter Family, Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and the Tennessee Three. His play list covered a wide variety of contemporary and classic country music. RN opened by welcoming the audience and the performers and noting the historic nature of the day because of the safe return of the astronauts from the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon mission.
Cash thanked the President and opened with his requested hit “A Boy Named Sue.”
The backstory of “A Boy Named Sue” was described in The Soundtrack of Our Lives.
Cash followed “Sue” with several songs:
He was then joined by June Carter and they sang “Jackson” and “Darlin Companion.” For “Peace in the Valley” and “He Turned the Water into Wine,” his backup was the Statler Brothers and the Carter Family. For “Daddy Sang Bass,” he was joined by Carl Perkins, June Carter, the Statler Brothers, and the Carter Family. The end of the performance was a bravura medley with June Carter reprising “Folsom Prison Blues,” Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family singing “I Walk the Line,” the Statler Brothers (“Ring of Fire”), Carl Perkins (“Folsom Prison Blues”), and Johnny Cash with the Tennessee Three singing “Johnny Yuma.” The finale was the entire cast singing the valedictory “Suppertime.”
Johnny Cash with RN in the Oval Office in July 1972. After testifying before a Senate subcommittee on the federal prison reorganization act, he went to the White House to discuss his testimony with RN. Cash describes both visits in his second autobiography —Cash: The Autobiography— published in 1997.
In March 1974, RN flew to Nashville for the opening of the new Grand Ole Opry House. After leading the audience (from a piano) singing “Happy Birthday” to PN, and attempting to work a yo-yo under Roy Acuff’s expert tutelage, RN described Johnny Cash’s April 1970 White House concert:
Before we had country music at the White House–and you know we brought it there on many occasions–we had some very sophisticated audiences there listening to the great stars, opera stars and all that sort of thing, and then Johnny Cash came and he was a big hit at the White House, and Merle Haggard came and he was a big hit at the White House–[applause]–go ahead, go ahead, he is probably listening–and Glenn Campbell, Roy Acuff.
He went on —extemporaneously— to talk about the May 1973 dinner he gave at the White House for the returning POWs. Of all the many stars who performed that night, he noted that the POWs were most enthusiastic for the country artists. And he reflected on the meaning of country music for America:
What country music is, is that first it comes from the heart of America, because this is the heart of America, out here in Middle America. Second, it relates to those experiences that mean so much to America. It talks about family, it talks about religion, the faith in God that is so important to our country and particularly to our family life. And as we all know, country music radiates a love of this Nation, patriotism.
Country music, therefore, has those combinations which are so essential to America’s character at a time that America needs character, because today–one serious note let me tell you, the peace, of the world for generations, maybe centuries to
come, will depend not just on America’s military might, which is the greatest in the world, or our wealth, which is the greatest in the world, but it is going to depend on our character, our belief in ourselves, our love of our country, our willingness to not only wear the flag but to stand up for the flag. And country music does that.
Top Photo: President and Mrs. Nixon and Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash at the White House on 17 April 1970