Volatile Attractions Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, and Managing a Music Legend

Escalation and Confrontation: Part Three

Johnny Cash, June Carter, Saul Holiff, and Phil Simon backstage at London Gardens, 1967

The year 1967 held more ups and downs. Although Cash and June Carter released the successful single "Jackson,'' Cash missed several shows during a tour in the midwestern United States early in the year, and his erratic behaviour continued to estrange promoters to the point that Holiff had trouble booking him.

Holiff had to enlist the help of Lucky Moeller, a Nashville talent agent, to help book shows at state and county fairs that summer, and even that did not resolve the issue. In May, Holiff sent Cash a telegram telling him that "after submitting you to every buyer in the business," Moeller "was able to come up with only four dates. Your professional behaviour is totally reprehensible."

Telegram from Saul Holiff to Johnny Cash, 6 May 1967

In the summer, Cash missed three of those four shows. The Illinois State Fair sued him for his absence, adding another lawsuit to the two he was facing already (one from his former manager, Stew Carnall, and the other from the federal government for the Los Padres fire). This meant that Holiff was handling three lawsuits in addition to Cash's divorce, and all the while Cash was still missing or cancelling shows. In one memorable case, Holiff invited his sister, Ann, and niece, Myra, to join him and Barbara at a show in Miami. As Myra later recalled, the show was a bitter disappointment for Holiff: within the first five minutes of Cash emerging onstage, he turned to Holiff in the front row with a plea to help him.

Listen to Myra Richman tell the story of seeing Cash in concert:

Interview with Myra Richman, 2006

By October 1967, Cash was perhaps at the lowest point of his life. The story of Cash's attempted suicide in Nickajack Cave in Tennessee (recounted in his autobiography Man in Black, in which he claims that he crawled into the cave to die but was guided to safety by God), dates to this point. Biographers have debunked this story to some degree as myth (it turns out that Nickajack cave was flooded at the time Cash claimed to have climbed inside), but there is no doubt that he was more troubled than ever.

June--apparently unwilling to abide Cash's drug use any longer--had announced she was leaving him and the show, and Cash poured his anger and sorrow into a nine-page letter to Holiff. Reflecting on the finalization of his divorce and the now unattainable dream of marrying June, Cash wrote, "It's hell to realize that today is Oct 21st 1967, and that there are just a few loose ends to straighten out in my divorce. . . . A year ago, it was a dream coming true that June had made me hang onto for five years," and now "she wants this tour, then wants free in November. To stop our life together just as it starts. . . . I dropped a terrible marriage but 4 sweet kids and half my estate thinking that June was planning to marry me and enjoy a few short years with me." Insisting that June cares more about her career and only ever wanted to control him ("I wish I didn't know this; but she has to dominate a man."), he concludes by saying that he seeks to "test Junes [sic] intentions" and "make her open up her heart to me."

Letter from Saul Holiff to Johnny Cash, 31 October 1967

June did not leave the tour, but the struggles of Cash and everyone around him continued. Just ten days later, Holiff sent him a critical letter (right) about the state of his finances. Before the end of the year, although he was attempting to overcome his addiction, Cash was arrested again, this time for public drunkenness, and crashed his tractor, adding to his toll of run-ins with the law and near-death experiences. One of the only things that offered significant promise at this point was that Cash had taken Holiff's advice earlier in the year and switched producers from Don Law to Bob Johnston.

With Johnston's help, they arranged to record a live concert in January 1968, a project that Cash had always wanted to pursue but had never come to fruition. The location was Folsom Prison, the notorious prison that Cash had immortalized in the song "Folsom Prison Blues," and where he had played a concert for the first time in 1966. With his personal life in turmoil and his professional life in need of revitalization, recording a live concert at a prison was an unprecedented and risky career move. Nonetheless, it seemed like something Cash just might pull off.

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