The loyal sideman who saved Johnny Cash's life
Published 20/08/2011 | 05:00
Marshall Grant achieved fame as sideman to Johnny Cash, his distinctive 'boom-chicka-boom' bass playing a defining part of Cash's sound on hits such as 'Ring of Fire', 'Folsom City Blues' and 'I Walk the Line'.
But Grant, who died this week of a brain aneurysm aged 83, was much more than just a musician.
A life-long teetotaller, he was a rock of sobriety when Cash was doing his best to party his way to oblivion. At the height of the hard-living singer's addiction to methamphetamines, it was Grant who, quite literally, kept the show on the road. He certainly had his work cut out. In his worst days, Cash made even the most debauched rocker look like a schoolboy, claiming to have sampled "every drug there is".
Together with Cash's long-suffering wife June Carter, it was Grant who strove tirelessly to get the country icon off illegal substances. If he hadn't been at his side, there is every reason to believe Cash would have died in a druggy haze sometime in the mid-60s.
"He was a true friend to Cash and can even be credited with saving his life on numerous occasions," Cash biographer Robert Hilburn told an American newspaper. "He was just heartbroken when Cash started getting so involved in drugs in the '60s. He spent countless hours to find the drugs and get rid of the drugs -- he and June Carter kind of worked together on that."
Speaking recently, Cash's daughter Rosanne credited the bassist with getting her father through some of his darkest moments. "Marshall was a solid, solid rock," she said. "I can't imagine what would have happened on those tours without him. He understood how complicated my dad was, that he was a great artist who had real demons."
For all the esteem in which he held Grant, ultimately Cash couldn't resist his darker impulses. In 1980, tensions over his narcotic use resulted in Grant being fired from the line-up. The fallout took a nasty turn six years later when Grant sued Cash for embezzling retirement funds, a dispute that was settled out of court.
In old age, the two finally mended their differences. As his fame grew again in the late '90s, thanks to the American Recordings albums he made with producer Rick Rubin, Cash always made a point of crediting Marshall's role in his success. He also expressed his lasting remorse at sacking his old friend.
"I said things that should have been left unsaid and I think I made a bad situation worse," he said. "Marshall and I had been so close for so long and it was painful to have the rift between us like the one that followed."
Grant grew up in the backwater town of Bessemer, North Carolina, one of 12 children. As a child he dreamed of being a musician but his family's hard-scrabble existence required him to learn a trade. So he trained as a mechanic and in 1946 married his sweetheart Etta May Dickerson. Searching for a new life, they relocated to Memphis. By 1954, when he met Cash for the first time, he was chief mechanic at the city's Automobile Sales Company and a colleague of Cash's brother Roy.
He clicked straight away with the intense Cash and within a few years he and guitarist Luther Perkins were backing the Man in Black. They were a solid outfit, notching up such enduring long play hits as Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian and America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song. Grant was at Cash's side when he played his famous concerts at Folsom and San Quentin Prisons in 1968 and 1969 and also served as his tour manager.
Neither Grant nor Cash ever pretended to be musical virtuosos. Indeed, both long maintained it was the rudimentary nature of their playing that gave their music its characteristic rough-hewn aesthetic.
Biographer Hillburn told the Los Angeles Times: "That primitive beat almost sounded like a heartbeat to me.
"It's almost like lightning striking. These three guys getting together and creating this sound."