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The Time Johnny Cash Set Fire to a National Forest

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Fri, Jun 13, 2014 at 4:05 AM
click to enlarge “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards.” - FROM THE CINDY CASH COLLECTION
  • From the Cindy Cash collection
  • “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards.”
Johnny Cash came to Southern California in 1958 after signing with Columbia. When he arrived, his good friend Merle Travis was waiting, along with labelmate Lefty Frizzell and a legion of Hollywood-based country performers.

Cash resided first in Johnny Carson's former Encino digs before heading north to Ventura, where, for much of the '60s, he maintained a lavish ranch home for wife Vivian and their four daughters, Rosanne, Kathy, Tara and Cindy.

But that makes it sound like he was a good boy.

Ventura's annual Johnny Cash tribute Roadshow Revival goes down this Saturday, June 14. It serves not only to venerate one of country's most universally revered artists but is also a chance to talk about what a maniac he was when he lived here.

Columbia offered Cash more money and artistic freedom than Sam Phillips ever provided at Sun, and this was his most intensely creative and ambitious period. His extraordinary output included his exceptional clutch of concept albums: the working man - themed Blood Sweat and Tears; his celebration of cowboy culture, Ballads of the True West; and the radical, politically supercharged Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. These, along with such epochal classics as "Ring of Fire," "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," "Five Feet High and Rising" and "Busted."

Onstage Cash was a mesmerizing, high-voltage entertainer, and he maintained an impressive roadshow troupe, featuring his superb Tennessee Three and rockabilly demon Carl Perkins, along with varying cast members including Rose Maddox, Gordon Terry, Johnny Western, The Statler Brothers and June Carter.

But Cash's personal life in the early '60s was pure chaos.  

Off-duty, Cash was at his most unhinged and reckless, a wild, mean-eyed cat roaring through a nonstop, amphetamine-fueled spree of Olympian scale. He was aggressively destroying his marriage with serial infidelity and had a penchant for missing concert dates and, when he was home in Ventura, pissing off his neighbors. 

The singer's idiotic hillbilly stunts included fixing speakers to his roof and blasting Christmas carols at top volume. The cops were called, and the local headline was "Johnny Cash Has Blue Christmas." Then there was the time he set fire to the Las Casitas National Forest: His overheated party truck became an igniting torch, scorching hundreds of acres, destroying foliage on three mountains and roasting, into near extinction, 49 of the area's 53 endangered California condors.

When held legally responsible by investigators, Cash endeared himself with statements such as, "I don't care about your damn yellow buzzards." 

Even as this orgy of self-destructive foolishness threatened to permanently hobble his career, the Ventura locale did provide a critical alliance. Cash's pastor at the local Avenue Community Church, Rev. Floyd Gressett, was friends with a local killer, Earl C. Green, who beat a man to death with a baseball bat. This relationship led to Gressett's ministering to inmates at San Quentin and Folsom and, ultimately, provided the contact that lead to the pair of live albums and the ABC summer-replacement television program that finally made Cash an international sensation.

By the time of the Folsom appearance, on Jan. 13, 1968, Cash and Vivian had divorced - he would marry Carter just weeks later. He would never again keep a home in California. For Cash, everything changed: "He takes a $1.98 tape into Folsom Prison," Carl Perkins said at the time, "and comes out with an album."

Live at Folsom soon was outselling The Beatles, and without that tumultuous season in Ventura, Cash's career would have been very different indeed.

Roadshow Revival happens Saturday, June 14, at the Ventury County Fairgrounds, with performances by Los Lobos, Dale Watson and others.

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