By 1961, Johnny Cash’s career had hit a bit of a lull. He’d had some hits like “I Walk the Line” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”.
Mark Stielper is a music historian who’s helped keep the Cash family archives. Cash was touring constantly. that year, but …
“His sales had not been too good after 1959,” Stielper says. “And he was looking for something that was going to click.”
That summer, Stielper said Cash would pull out one of the songs he’d written on a yellow legal pad, his band would run through it once or twice and then they’d record. Johnny Western played rhythm guitar on a lot of them.
“This thing worked like a well-oiled clock,” Western says.
One of the songs featured a guitar lick Cash had written, but couldn’t actually play. So he brought in Roy Nichols – who wasn’t well-known at the time but later played with Merle Haggard.
“He was there expressly for that lick, which was the selling point of that particular song,” Western says.
The song was “Tennessee Flat Top Box”.
In a little cabaret in a South Texas border town
Sat a boy with his guitar
And the people came from all around
And all the girls from there to Austin
Were slippin’ away from home and puttin’ jewelry in hock
To take the trip and go and listen
To the little dark-haired boy that played the Tennessee Flat Top Box
And he would play
Johnny Cash wasn’t born in Texas. But he had a long and deep connection with Texas – and certainly, Texans have connected to his music. Cash recorded songs about cowboys and gunfighters, about the sound of a far-off train rumbling toward San Antonio. “Tennessee Flat Top Box” is one about a little boy who played guitar.
The story goes this little boy from the Texas border doesn’t have many talents to speak of, but he can really play this steel-stringed guitar. He’s a sensation. One day, he disappears. In time, people forget about him.
And then one day on the hit parade
Was a little dark-haired boy that played the Tennessee Flat Top Box
And he would play
Johnny Cash was a little dark-haired boy obsessed with music, albeit from Dyess, Arkansas – not the Texas border. But he did have a Texas connection.
When Cash was 18, he enlisted and was sent to Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio. That’s where he met his future first wife, Vivian Liberto. A month later, he was sent to Germany. For three years, they courted each other through thousands of letters. Shortly after he returned to the states they got married at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in San Antonio.
“His connection to San Antonio was through Vivian,” Stiepler says. “He was very close to Vivian’s family. In fact the very first will that he ever made in the late 1950s, he assigned Vivian’s brother to be the executor of that will.”
The newlyweds quickly relocated to Memphis, but south Texas stuck with Cash. You can hear it in songs like “Tennessee Flat Top Box”, and in the horn section of “Ring of Fire”.
In the end, the song was the superhit Cash was looking for. “Tennessee Flat Top Box” reached number 11 on the country charts – a welcome success, but not a blockbuster.
For about 25 years, that’s all there was to say. Cash’s career and personal life rolled through peaks and valleys. Eventually, his daughter Rosanne started her own career – making the kind of music not usually associated with the Cash name.
“Hold On” is from her 1985 album “Rhythm and Romance”. It was a tough one to record and she told her then-husband, country artist Rodney Crowell, the experience had taken a toll.
“I was so burnt out I just told Rodney I don’t want to make any more records,” Rosanne Cash says. “I’m just done, I don’t want to go through that experience again.”
She got letters from her record label’s lawyers, saying she was past due to deliver an album. It didn’t matter – she’d done as much as she could. But one day, Crowell came to her with a new idea.
“He said you should make a real roots record,” Cash says. “Get away from all these synthesizer sounds and big snare sounds we’d been addicted to in the early 80s and make something that sounds really roots. And he suggested ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box.’”
She knew the song, knew her dad had recorded it and she thought it was one of his greats.
“[Crowell] said I think your dad wrote that song,” Cash says. “And I said no, I don’t think so. I think it’s public domain. I just thought it was part of the air, it had always been there. Then we recorded it, and I asked my dad after we had recorded it, I said ‘Dad did you write this song?’ He said ‘Yeah, I wrote it.’”
Cash had distanced herself from her father’s shadow for a long time. And she’d had plenty of success doing that. But something about playing her dad’s song just felt different.
“Eddie Bayers was playing drums – great drummer, been in Nashville a long time,” Cash says. “At the end of the first take, he stopped and he had tears in his eyes. And he said ‘Pay attention boys, we won’t pass this way again.’ He was so thrilled to be playing that song, that kind of music. I’ll just never forget him saying that.”
“Tennessee Flat Top Box” may not have been the hit Johnny Cash was looking for in 1961, but it was a turning point in his daughter’s career. It was one of four singles from Rosanne Cash’s album that reached number one on the country charts.
“I think that every time we play it, I’m aware of my dad,” Cash says. “I don’t own that song. I mean I own an interpretation of the song but I’m always aware it’s my dad’s song. And there’s a sweetness in that, you know? It’s like dad and I, we work in the same office.”
So she’s played “Tennessee Flat Top Box” at nearly every concert for 30 years – including at a memorial held for her father a few months after he died in 2003. She says it was a night mostly filled with sadness, until she played that song.
“And I felt some joy,” Cash says. “You know that this music isn’t going to – it’s not going to go away. And you know we connect – and always will – on that song.”