Bob Wootton - Doing time with Cash
Bob Wootton was playing his guitar on the porch of the family home in Paris, Arkansas when his mother called out for him to come and listen to the radio. “There’s someone here,” she said, “who sounds a lot like you do.”
The “someone here” turned out to be Johnny Cash, singing I Walk the Line, which became and remains Wootton’s all-time favourite song. He wasn’t to know, however, that a few years later he’d be laying down the boom-chicka-boom guitar pattern that fuelled this and a whole catalogue of Johnny Cash songs with the man in black himself.
Wootton’s recruitment by Cash, for whom he went on to work for almost thirty years, is the stuff of movie scripts. A singer and guitarist who sang Cash, George Jones and Ernest Tubb songs with his own country band, the Commancheros, he’d taken the night off from his regular gig to drive to the nearest big town, Fayetteville, to see his hero.
“I didn’t have a ticket, didn’t even know if I’d get in,” says Wootton, “I just heard he was playing at some outdoor venue and went off to try and find him.”
When Cash’s wife, June Carter, came onstage to announce that Cash’s band, the Tennessee Three, had been delayed by a cancelled flight and wouldn’t be appearing, Wootton and his girlfriend were right at the front of the crowd. Pointing to Wootton, his girlfriend yelled, “He knows all the songs and he can play just like Luther.”
Luther Perkins, Cash’s original guitarist, had died a few months beforehand, following the house fire that became a premonition to Cash in the I Walk the Line biopic, and Wootton had indeed perfected his style with the Commancheros. Carter consulted Cash and he told Wootton, “Tune my guitar, then they’re going to re-introduce me. We’ll start with The Wreck of the ’97 and then I Still Miss Someone.”
So, on a guitar belonging to Carl Perkins, the man who wrote Blue Suede Shoes and who had replaced his namesake temporarily, Wootton played, “like I’d been doing it all my life – which I had been, except that, up to that point, Johnny Cash hadn’t been there with me.”
Two days later, Cash called Wootton to an audition with his band.
“I was a nervous wreck,” he says. “I had a borrowed guitar and was using this amp that was on castors and kept rolling to the front of the stage. So I was trying to play and keep the amp from moving and I thought, I’ve really messed up now. I was telling myself that I should never have come back because it would have been a whole lot better if John and June could have looked back years later and said, Damn, that guy back in Fayetteville was good, whatever happened to him? But I made my way through it and got the job permanently.”
One of Wootton’s earliest gigs with Cash, just a few months after he joined the band, was the February 1969 concert in San Quentin prison that gave Cash one of his best selling albums and a surprise hit single, A Boy Named Sue – a surprise because Cash didn’t even know the words and it had no tune when he started performing it. Walking through the prison corridors, seeing the guards with their guns and hearing the gates clang closed behind him, Wootton concedes, felt scary. He knew, though, that the prisoners loved Cash and regarded him as one of their own, and even when the “Where’s Luther?” cry that’s captured on the album went out, he realised that the guy who yelled it must have been a big Cash fan to know the names of individual musicians, so he didn’t feel he had anything to prove.
Even with a fanatical audience, however, at one point the concert began to flag. When they’d arrived at San Quentin, Cash had found, as was normal at every venue, a pile of mail waiting for him. Among the letters was one from Shel Silverstein, who later provided Dr Hook with their Sylvia’s Mother breakthrough. Cash had read it and laughed and put it in his briefcase. So when the inmates were at their coolest, he called for Wootton to fetch his briefcase and produced Silverstein’s letter.
“We hadn’t a clue what he was planning, we just started playing and kept that rhythm going,” says Wootton. “Then he started to read out the words of A Boy Named Sue. No rehearsal, nothing, he absolutely nailed it first time and that performance went on to sell seven million copies. People used to ask why we didn’t go into the studio and record it properly but it wouldn’t have had anything like the atmosphere or excitement John created with those prisoners. He was such a great actor, apart from being a great singer, and he had real presence: he could walk into any room and everybody would turn to look at him.”
Wootton remained with Cash until the singer decided to retire from touring in 1996. The two men had become close – Wootton knew Cash’s music better than Cash himself, often reminding him of the keys songs had been recorded in originally – but as Cash began the American Recordings series without the trademark Tennessee Three sound, Wootton was left without a gig in his diary. All the time he’d played with Cash, he’d been forbidden to play or record with anyone else and the offers he’d had and turned down during those years dried up.
With a young family to support, he took a job driving tour buses for Chicago, Def Leppard, Metallica, the Smashing Pumpkins and various rappers, who, he says, “drove me nuts with all that stuff they were smokin’.” A clean living, god-fearing man, Wootton had tried many times to persuade Cash off the pills that, he says, took their toll on his friend and hero. “He’d still be here today if it weren’t for those things and that still makes me angry,” he says.
When Cash died in 2003, Wootton was devastated and despite being hailed as a guitar legend and one of the top 1000 guitarists of all-time, he thought he’d never play again until an invitation to play on a St Patrick’s Day parade three years ago, brought his enthusiasm for playing music back. Today he tours with his own Tennessee Three – himself, wife Vicky, who used to sing with June Carter in the Carter Family, and daughter Scarlett – keeping the Cash sound and songbook alive.
“A lot of people have tried and failed to perfect that boom-chicka-boom sound,” he says. “Better guitarists than me – Chet Atkins was one; Waylon Jennings was another - have asked me to show them how to do it and they can’t master it because it’s a simple thing and they try and be too fancy. Back when I had the Commancheros, my own guitarist couldn’t get it quite right. So I decided, I’ll do it myself and the next day, I had it down, took to it like a duck takes to water. Now I’m getting asked to do it again for other people’s records and I politely decline. I tell them, maybe when I’m done with this group I’ll take up their offers. But as long as I have this Tennessee Three that I’m working with now, that’s the only group I want to play with.”
From The Herald, October 29, 2010.