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Walk the line

Anita Chaudhuri visits Nashville, Tennessee, the home of Johnny Cash – and ends up on a nostalgic trip down memory lane in honour of her late mother
PHOTOGRAPHS: GETTY IMAGES; 4CORNERS IMAGES

Onstage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, staring out at rows of polished wooden pews, I can scarcely believe I am here. Sunlight streams through stained glass, blocking out tour groups. For a precious moment, it feels like it’s just me… Me and the spirit of an extraordinary man; the man who growled away in a corner of our suburban semi for so many years, the man who made this auditorium world-famous by broadcasting his weekly TV show live from this very stage, the ‘Man in Black’, the one and only Johnny Cash.

Johnny, mama and me

I’m in Nashville on a pilgrimage of sorts, making a journey that my mother, who died four years ago, would have loved to make. When I was growing up, she may have appeared to be just like all the other mums in our Glasgow street – ferrying us to Brownies and baking cakes – but, behind closed doors, something unusual was going on. I vividly remember the first time I heard his voice rumbling from the stereo: ‘I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.’ That line disturbed me profoundly. And then, another day, barely audible above the vacuuming, the same voice singing about A Boy Named Sue. A boy named Sue? Cash had arrived, and he never really left. Eventually, we got used to him bellowing in the background and got on with our lives. I grew up and embraced punk. Cash stopped being a mystery and instead became an embarrassment. In that era, country music meant achy breaky hearts, rhinestones and too much cleavage – the antithesis of my idols, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith. What I didn’t realise then was that Cash, who publicly aligned himself with society’s outsiders, was as rebellious as any punk. And so was my mother. She had taken the bold step of leaving her tiny Perthshire village, moving to the city and marrying my Indian father at a time when mixed-race couples were rare. No wonder she strongly identified with outsiders, a mindset she passed on to me. On a backstage tour of the Ryman, you can visit Cash’s dressing room. It was here that he met singer June Carter on the night he made his debut in 1956. ‘Someday, I’ll marry you,’ he told her and, 12 years later, he did. ‘She saved him,’ Mum told me wistfully. For a time, Cash was banned from the Ryman after smashing up the stage while high on drugs.

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