Thursday 23 March 2017

Marshall Grant

During his 26 years playing bass with Johnny Cash, he twice saved the drug-addicted music legend's life

Marshall Grant, who has died aged 83, spent 26 years playing bass with the country music superstar Johnny Cash; a God-fearing, non-smoking, drug-abstaining teetotaller, he looked out for Cash during some of the singer's worst binges, and is credited with saving his life at least twice.

Grant's organisational skills and ability to stand up straight when Cash was falling-down drunk meant he also fell naturally into an improvised role of road manager (or, as he sometimes termed it, "general flunkey"), taking on responsibility for travel arrangements, bookings and finances. Without him, it seems doubtful that Cash would have remained alive, let alone on the road, during the hard early years.

Reining in Cash's wilder behaviour demanded great patience, especially as the singer's mood swings, driven by amphetamine abuse, grew wilder. On one occasion Grant resuscitated Cash after an overdose; later (with the help of the fiddler Gordon Terry) he pulled a stoned Cash from the edge of a hotel balcony in Indianapolis.

On tour, Grant often initiated high jinks in an attempt to distract Cash from his drug cravings. But eventually he and the singer June Carter (who joined their entourage in 1962 and became Cash's second wife in 1968) teamed up as long-suffering "war-buddies" in an ultimately futile battle against Cash's habit, regularly finding and flushing away his ingeniously hidden stashes of pills.

Such were the drug-induced lacunae and distortions in Cash's memory that his daughter, Rosanne (now a successful singer-songwriter in her own right), considered Grant the only reliable chronicler of large parts of her father's career. "Marshall is the one I go to when I want to know the real facts about some moment in the life of my parents," she noted.

Marshall Garnett Grant was born on May 5, 1928, at Bryson City, North Carolina, the eighth of 12 children. By the age of 10 he was playing the guitar. In 1947 he moved to Memphis with wife Etta, a year after their marriage. It was while working as a motor mechanic that he met John R Cash, who joined the amateur group Grant had formed with Luther Perkins and Red Kernodle. Since they all played guitar, Grant switched to bass, and when they heard Elvis Presley on local radio in 1954, they decided to approach Sam Phillips, Elvis's producer and the founder of Sun Records. They tried out a gospel song, but Phillips asked them to record a country tune, which would be more marketable.

One thing he did not want to change, however, was their raw, original style, which was soon to become famous as Cash's "boom-chicka-boom" sound. Not that there was much option -- they were not good enough to play any other way. Kernodle pulled out with a bad case of nerves just before they recorded Cash's composition Hey Porter, so the group became Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two.

Released as a single in June 1955 -- with Cry, Cry, Cry on the B-side -- Hey Porter reached No 14 in the charts. After the follow-up, Folsom Prison Blues, the band appeared with Presley and their popularity quickly grew. On stage, Grant's kinetic, gum-chewing manner proved a highly effective foil both to the focused, almost motionless Perkins and to the group's magnetic frontman.

"I was so active, jumping up and down," Grant recalled. "What I was trying to do was set the rhythm of the song. We didn't have a drummer at the time, and when I was playing slap bass it was almost like playing bass and drums at the same time."

As the Sixties wore on, the group's fame became global but their grinding schedule took a heavy toll. Cash stopped taking drugs after the birth of his son John Carter in 1970, but by 1977 had returned to his habit. His behaviour became increasingly irrational and in February 1980 Cash sacked Grant, accusing him of stealing $1m.

In their quarter-century together, Grant and Cash had recorded such celebrated songs as Man In Black (1971), Ring of Fire (1967) and I Walk The Line (1956); the pair were eventually reconciled when Cash made his final public appearance at an all-star tribute in March 1999, four years before his death.

Marshall Grant is survived by his wife, Etta, and son Randall.

Sunday Independent

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