Cash had many Canadian fans
TORONTO — Johnny Cash’s huge popularity in Canada was earned the hard way, by endless road trips that covered small communities from La Ronge, Sask., to Lucan, Ont.
Cash, who died Friday in Nashville, played the big venues, including Maple Leaf Gardens and the Canadian National Exhibition, repeatedly in his five-decade career.
But the Man in Black also brought his guitar to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., at least five times. He walked the line in Kamloops, B.C., and Grand Prairie, Alta.
He also helped promote performers who later became some of Canada’s best-known artists.
“Cash introduced mainstream country music to a lot of music fans for the first time,” Larry Leblanc, Canadian bureau chief for Billboard Magazine, said Friday.
Leblanc cited Cash’s TV show, in the 1960s, for introducing two major Canadian musicians to the world. “Cash put Neil Young and Joni Mitchell in the spotlight, embraced their music and called the duo fine songwriters.”
Saul Holiff, who managed Cash’s career during the 1960s and 70s from an apartment in London, Ont., said Friday that Cash was a complex character.
“He was mercurial. He was enigmatic. He was a pussycat. He wasn’t like he appeared to be. He was tough. He was miserable. He was a nice guy. He was a lot of different things.”
Holiff, now retired in Nanaimo, B.C., said he underestimated his client several times.
“He didn’t start out to be Johnny Cash. Sometimes he sang dreadfully, if he had too much to drink or too many pills. We were treated with casual indifference for much of the time for a long time.
“When I thought there was no future for him whatsoever, he came out with Ring of Fire. That started something and then out of the blue we played Folsom Prison and San Quentin and suddenly a cult started to develop.”
“His material evolved, and then that television show came along, and suddenly he was another American hero.”
Holiff left Cash in 1973, when he thought his career had peaked. “And for several years he went into a tailspin.”
But then, Holiff said, Cash triumphed again this year, being nominated in six categories at the MTV Video Music Awards, winning for cinematography for Hurt.
“I was guilty for underestimating him repeatedly.”
Cash had another connection to the city of London: he proposed to his wife and touring partner, June Carter, there in 1968. “It wasn’t at a remote table in the corner by candlelight,” Cash recalled in his autobiography years later. “It was onstage … before 5,000 people.”
Cash had many friends in Canada, including Ronnie Hawkins and Tommy Hunter.
“He used to come in and stay when he would do shows in town and I had him up in my gym three or four times,” Hawkins said Friday in an interview from Peterborough, Ont.
Hunter recalled driving around Toronto once with Cash, who was a “dapper” guy then, looking in shoe stores for a special kind of black shoes with white inlays that Elvis Presley had and Cash wanted.
“I think he bought every shoe that was black with a white inlay.”
Cash was a frequent visitor on Canadian television.
“The very first network show that he did was on Country Hoedown,” says Hunter. “Folsom Prison Blues was just out. I remember him doing it on the show. I was familiar with the old Flatt and Scruggs version and I was amazed at what he had done with the song. Cash grabbed that song and changed it and put a whole different sound and a different beat to it.
“His songs were very simple. They were about as close to the soil as you could get. He shared a lot of the working man’s grief and woes.”
Sylvia Tyson said Cash influenced many people “and not just in country music. His writing style and his persona, his delivery, the whole thing, he’s an original.”
Cash recorded songs by several Canadians, including Ian Tyson, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Ian Tyson and Paul Brandt.
Cash toured Canada regularly up until 1996. When he played at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto on Nov. 10, 1969, he drew more than 18,000 people who paid a total of $93,000 — a one-night record at the time both for Cash and the arena.
His last concert was at Massey Hall in Toronto in 1996. I can happily say that I was in the audience.
Cash had many Canadian fans