“A triple threat: great songwriter, guitarist, and singer. And one of the most positive people on the planet.”
-Peter Breinholt, neo-folk luminary
“One of the most talented musicians you will ever meet”
-Austin Deptula, producer/mix engineer (Leann Rimes, Boyce Avenue, New Found Glory, Pat Green, Mickey Dolenz, Eisley)
“A consumate performer”
– Bart Marantz, Norah Jones’ former music teacher, legendary jazz educator
“Best version of Don’t Worry, Be Happy since the original”
-Sam Cardon, multi Emmy award winning composer
“He’s going to be one of the greats.”
“You are one BAD boy.”
-Milo Deering, Texas’ most recorded studio musician, composer of the famous “Motel 6” theme
“Not only are you a great songwriter and singer, but you are one H#$% of a guitar player. And I don’t give out compliments. I don’t need to.”
-Don Kelley, iconic Nashville bandleader and former employer to Brent Mason and Johnny Hiland
With a smile, Justin calls his style of music “feel-good music.” His style of feel-good rhythm and blues has grown out of his unstoppable personality and tendency to view the struggle of life through a lens of hope. Justin grew up moving around the United States, has spent two years in Spain, and his blues-rock roots have picked up a variety of flavors along the way. Justin Cash’s natural joie de vivre brings you to a feel good place where music grooves and melody is king, with songs that acknowledge a range of emotions, yet are propelled by his active belief that there is good in the world.
Excerpts from various interviews…A.K.A. More than you EVER wanted to know:
Interview with Courtney Wilson
Courtney: Is Justin Cash your real name or is it a stage name? (It’s a pretty great musician name, I’m just sayin’)
Justin: Real name. Never thought anything of it, really, until you asked just now! Just kidding- people do ask if I’m related to Johnny Cash. Depending on the person, I either answer: “No, his family immigrated from Scotland, mine came from Ireland.” Or… “Yes, by golly, we ARE related, how did you know?! I am actually his dad.”
Courtney: How long have you been married?
Justin: We just celebrated our tenth anniversary! Annie and I met in a Denver guitar store called Acoustic Music Revival where I used to teach lessons. She came in and said: “I want to learn how to play the blues.” I remember that during our first lesson, I was smiling so much that my cheeks actually hurt. We’ve been together ever since.
Courtney: How many kids do you have?
Justin: Annie and I have three sons: James, Landon, and Miles. They are my entire world.
Courtney: Did you move around a lot as a kid? Where have you lived?
Justin: We did move around a lot. I’ve lived in NM, CO, UT, NH, NY, and TX, four of those states, in more than one place in the state!
Courtney: Where do you want to settle when you are old and grey?
Justin: In a cabin that the boys and I will build for Annie, in the mountains of Colorado.
Courtney: What other jobs have you had or considered as long-term careers?
Justin: I’ve worked all of the requisite musician jobs: Construction, dishwasher, waiter, music teacher, but I guess I always knew in the back of my mind that I would do music for a living. I never knew how, I just knew what.
Courtney: Is this a dream come true for you? Have you always wanted to be a musician?
Justin: Oh, absolutely! For me, “making it” means that you are providing for your family, or yourself, doing what you love and are good at.
Courtney: Who/What influences you the most in your music?
Justin: I guess there are two main things. The first is conceptual, or the songwriting. That is influenced by, quite simply, living life. Little nuggets of emotional meaning that occur in the normal flow of life as a husband, father, citizen, American- world events, etc.
For example, when your child says something so profoundly simple that it strikes you right in the chest. Once, Annie and I were reading the scriptures with our kids and explaining with a picture that the dove is a symbol for peace. He said: “I wish I had a dove”. What he meant was, “ I wish I had a dove, because if I could just get that one thing, maybe war would end and then there would be peace in the world”.
That phrase “I wish I had a dove”, hit me like a lightning bolt, I went into the office and wrote the chorus of “Dove”, which later came out on my “Beautiful World” album. When I came out of the office and played it for Annie, she cried. Normally she doesn’t like a rough draft, so I knew we were on to something!
The second influence is musical. I tend to get a lot of inspiration from World music, specifically Africa, Brazil, and Latin America/Spain. Although I do listen to the radio all the time, and I love Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley, etc.. World music sounds a lot more fresh to my ears these days.
Although when I first began playing, I was influenced quite a bit by Eric Clapton, I have since spent a lot of time really studying all the greats in depth: J.S.Bach, John Coltrane, Joe Pass, Charlie Parker, etc.
Courtney: How do you balance being a husband and father and working in the music industry?
Justin Priorities. Easy to set, hard to live by. I remember a few years back I promised Annie that I’d rake the yard, it was choking to death under a blanket of brown, dead oak leaves. It was really important to her and I had put it off all week. Saturday afternoon, we finally began raking it up as a family, when someone called on my cell phone with a last-minute job offer to play a show in the city that night.
The pay was decent and we needed the money, but a promise is a promise. I remember struggling with that decision- we mulled over the pros and cons out there in the leaves. I decided to finish the leaves and make good on my promise. Things always work out when you do the right thing.
Of course, there are times when you need to work extra hard and put in some 14 hour days, which I’ve certainly done. Providing for your family is one of the most important things a husband and father can do. But I have a lot of musician friends whose accumulated total of missed PTA meetings, birthday parties and basketball games totals up to a tragic divorce and loneliness. You can’t go wrong by putting your family first.
Balance isn’t so much equal parts as it is constantly adjusting; as well as not allowing seemingly important, apparent “yolo” or “false horizon” moments to crowd out the most important things.
Courtney: Do your kids have any favorite songs of yours?
Justin: They actually do! Landon, our rock and roller, loves “Rain, Rain”, and Miles, the baby, likes the cover we did of “Over The Rainbow”. When we get in the car, he will repeat “ Some rainbow, some rainbow, some rainbow” up to 49 times until you turn on the song.
Courtney: Do you have a favorite song (not necessarily one of your own)?
Justin: Tough question, there are so many good ones. I would say that for me, it doesn’t get much better than “Amazing Grace”, with “Over The Rainbow” being maybe in second place, and Bach’s “Suite for Solo Cello No. 1 in G Major” in third.
Courtney: How do you keep the negative trends of the music/entertainment industry from getting to you and influencing your work?
Justin: Another tough one. I don’t have an easy answer, other than I just try every day to avoid any and all negative media. The line to draw is actually pretty clear. If it makes you feel bad inside, turn it off. It is so difficult to extract negative media from your brain once it has wormed its way up in there, the best option for me is to steer as far clear as possible.
Once my band was performing at a venue in Texas where there was a gigantic flat screen TV near the stage. I glanced behind me at the TV mid performance and saw something I’m ashamed to say that I saw. I was worried that the club manager would either fire me or get angry and not have us back, but I asked him politely if he wouldn’t mind turning it off. To my surprise, he was embarrassed at what was on the screen and fixed the problem right away.
Courtney: Which instruments do you play? What is your favorite?
Justin: Acoustic, electric and classical guitar mainly, although I do want to start playing more piano. “No Sorrow in Jesus’, from the new CD, was written on the piano. If I had to do it all over again, I’d start with piano and drums, but the guitar is actually a good blend of both of those instruments. I can’t whistle after I’ve eaten a saltine cracker.
Courtney: Do any of your songs have a special story or connection to you?
Justin: You bet. “God Only Made one of You” came into my head when I was on a plane, flying away to work for two weeks. I thought, “What if I don’t come back?” “What if that was the last time I ever see my wife?” The more I thought on that, the more terrible I felt. I’m sure we’ve all thought that type of thing before.
It can be one of the more powerful emotions in life, the sudden and tragic loss of someone with whom our life is inextricably tied. What do you do now? Why did I not love them like I should and appreciate the time we had together more? These are tough questions with no made-to-order answers, the sadness can be overpowering. Here is a link to the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xADkgG8U1sQ
Courtney: What does a typical work-day look like for you?
Justin: I try to get as much work done as early in the morning as possible, we spend afternoons together as a family, then I’ll typically be off to perform somewhere at night. Amazingly, we actually eat breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner together as a family, nearly every day.
Courtney: Is it ever “work” or is it always just “play?
Justin: I have to be honest with you, sometimes it is work. Actually a lot of the time it is. If it was all fun and easy then everyone would be doing it!.
There is plenty of loading and hauling heavy sound equipment, traveling long distances, and running your own business: contracts, finding work, booking the gigs, 100’s of emails and calls, advertising, sales, payroll,…blah blah..
But, but but……When You’re actually on stage playing music and making people happy…the closest thing I could compare it to is that it feels like you are flying.
Courtney: How were you “discovered”?
Justin: Well, I don’t believe any artist is really “discovered” any more than Columbus discovered America. (I’m sure you feel the same, right?) When you finally see a person pop up in itunes, for example, that’s going to generally be about a year- minimum -AFTER they even wrote and recorded the songs. So it takes an awfully long time, years and years. Developing one’s artistry, like in the case of Picasso or J.R.R. Tolkien, is a lifelong, daily pursuit, and when they are discovered by the general public may be anywhere along that developmental path.
That said, there does seem to be a general “tipping point” when the public becomes aware at an increasing rate of the existence of something. That tipping point probably started a year or so ago for me, when Bob Ahlander, a fantastic visionary of a guy and head of Shadow Mountain Records, came to see me perform a show in Denver, Colorado. Our conversations the next day started me on the path towards where I am headed today.
Courtney: Do you still get butterflies before a performance?
Justin: One of my musical mentors, jazz saxophonist Ray Smith, used to say: “Stage fright is a selfish mentality”. So, yes, when I allow negative or self-centered thoughts to enter my mind before a performance, it can certainly feel actually physically debilitating. “Why does this sound system sound like a speak and spell coming through a lawnmower? Why am I not as good as so-and-so? Will that guy wearing the Metallica shirt think that I am an awesome guitar player? I’ve literally felt my hands and mind slow down and stumble in real time as I’ve allowed negativity to weasel its way in.
When I am able to control my thoughts and realize that I am there as a servant, to share a beautiful, God-given gift with these wonderful people who are my brothers and sisters, things go great. Eliminate selfishness, and you eliminate stage fright!
Courtney: What advice would you give to beginners who are nervous?
Justin: Some of the best advice I was given on this topic was in college, when Lars Yorgesen, a jazz bassist, told me “you need to play more gigs”. That was twelve years ago, and I’ve played 3-5 nights a week almost ever since. You learn things in a performance situation that cannot be taught in a practice room or classroom, like: “ Next time, I am going to buy some hot pink guitar picks. I just dropped my dark brown pick on the dimly lit stage and am on my hands and knees in front of everyone trying to find it.”
If you feel nervous, it may be simply because you are not used to doing something, so, purposefully create situations where you have to perform for others, as much as possible. You probably don’t feel nervous tying your shoes, even if you had to do it in front of a thousand people! Unless you are a Velcro person, you’ve tied your shoes enough times to make it effortless.
Courtney: Is the rhythm and blues style that you perform also your favorite genre to listen to?
Justin: Oh, I love rhythm and blues, as well as black gospel, Rhythm and blues does seem to be a sort of magnetic north for me, and I’ll always kind of find my way home to it. However, what’s in my ipod? Everything from Yo Yo Ma to modern jazz, to crazy world music that I never knew existed before itunes radio was invented!
Courtney: Do you ever make mistakes during your performances? If so, how do you handle them?
Justin: One of my old teachers, Jerry Hahn, used to say, jokingly: “If you make a mistake, repeat it. Then everyone will think you meant to do it.”
Now, this may not work if you are a classical violinist performing a recital, but if you are performing music that has room for improvisation with a sympathetic and supportive band, some of the unexpected mistakes can actually turn the song towards an entirely fresh destination, a back road that wasn’t on the map until you had the courage to jump off the main road and go there. If we are going to new places and taking musical risks with the band, it’s a great night. If we are not taking risks and are afraid to fall, the music tastes as stale as a week old doughnut!
Courtney: What are some of the hard things about being a performing musician for a living?
Justin: Have you ever been driving in the dark on a country road and turned your car lights off for a second, and then experienced that total freak-out,”I-have- no-idea-where-I-am-going-what-if-I-crash!!” feeling? Well, that’s how it is on a bad day. Most days are actually pretty good, nowdays, though.
I feel that my wife and family have grown a lot in our character as human beings through the experience. One night I’ll be performing, people are really digging the music, and I’m making excellent money to take home. The next night may very well be the exact opposite, through no fault of my own! So, you develop humility, and patience through the downs and ups.
We spent our life savings to make an album. As we see the good fruits of what’s come since taking that risk, we’ve developed faith. You develop courage as you withstand one hundred in-your-face rejections to get to that one “yes”. You are kept continuously aware of your total and utter dependence on the mercy of God.
Courtney: Do any of your boys want to be musicians when they grow up?
Justin: Yes! James, our oldest, is hilarious. One day this Summer, totally on his own accord, he started a band with a neighbor kid on drums, and they held a “concert” in our driveway, with a wooden palette as a stage.
They made T-shirts, sold tickets to the neighbors, and even had autographed picks for sale, which the neighborhood girls (the “fan club”) sold at a table. I was working all day in the office, and came out to see all of this happening in the street that evening like “What!!? Who taught you how to do all of this, kid!!?” He did it 100% on his own.
Courtney: What does it mean to “self-produce” your work?
Justin: Good question. That just means that I was the guy that did the writing, arrangements, charts, budget, studio time booking, hiring, schedule, pre-production recordings, coordination, payroll, etc. A.K.A. All of the boring stuff.
Luckily, I worked as an intern at a great production studio right out of grad school, and had already had experience doing all of those things. I didn’t do it without help, by any means, there were a lot of other ears involved, including my wife, who has an uncanny layman’s knack for spotting things that work and things that don’t.
Courtney: What are some victories, failures you’ve experienced?
Justin: I’ve actually experienced both at the exact same time before. A while ago, I performed in a fantastic Latin Jazz band called Soleo. We were actually on staff at a local entertainment venue owned by the Grand Ole Opry. It was as close to a “real job” as you could ever have as a musician. We performed twice a week and the pay equated to half our family’s income. It went on for almost two years and felt like it would last forever.
Then one day, we got the call that the venue was cutting all live music. I felt like a crushed flower. Half of our family’s income gone… just like that.
I had no idea how we were going to make it now, and we had just barley had our third child. Five mouths to feed. No jobs in sight. I remember sitting on the couch, feeling such an overpowering depression that it seemed like I was trying to move through the bottom of the ocean with weights strapped to my chest.
Days later, our first shipment of the finished CD, “Beautiful World”, came in the mail from the disc replicator. We still have a picture of me and the kids in front of the house, eagerly ripping open the first package of CD’s, the kids smiling, me forcing a worried half-smile.
Looking back, of course, it makes sense. It was time to start with my artist career and the 10 years of paying dues as a sideman/session player were drawing to a close. So I guess, what I thought was a failure turned out to be a victory.
Courtney: Why do you do music?
Justin: Because for me, I believe it is a God given gift, and as the possessor of a gift, it is my duty to be grateful for it and to share it.
Courtney: Any thoughts on the power of music?
Justin: It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? It kind of fills me with awe for a Creator who dreamed up this language that few can speak, yet that all can understand. Is there another language so universally understood?
Not to mention, the presence of music seems to amplify a plain old written word and fill it with rich cake-layers of new meaning. As far as self-improvement goes, mastering just one instrument is the pursuit of a lifetime, and can parallel with the discipline mastering of oneself.
Courtney: Any thoughts on creativity in general?
Justin: We were born to create. Just look at who our Father is. We are His kids. I believe that one of the highest levels of existence is creation. That could mean a husband and wife creating a family, a kid drawing with a half broken brown crayon, or the formation of an organized solar system.
I remember being knee-deep in the planning stages of one of the songs, “Rain Rain”- I was trying to create a Middle Eastern feel with acoustic slide guitars, recording them at the home to see what it sounded like. I remember just having this deep feeling of joy at that moment, an absolute paint-all-over-your-hands, pure joy of creation moment that I’ll never forget.
I think we need to pay attention to how we feel during those times. When we feel fully realized, totally at peace, like we are doing what we were born to do, that is when we can be sure that we are on the right path. The challenge is to remember that, and, to cling to those good moments when doubt comes creeping around the next day.
Courtney: What do you want people to hear/feel when they hear your music?
Courtney: What’s the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a performance?
Justin: Once, I was hired by a wealthy family to perform for the dad’s birthday party. After setting up my guitar and PA system in the back yard of their nice home, one of the dad’s kids, a cute little girl, came up to me – all dressed in a little pink dress with a bow in her hair and everything.
I said: “Hello, how are you?”
She snipped: “ What’s your name?”
I said: “Justin Cash, pleased to meet you, what’s yours?”
She responded, somewhat miffed: “Are you famous!?”
I replied: “Well, no not really.”
She quipped: “ Because my friend had Justin BIEBER come sing for her at HER birthday party. Are you as famous as Justin Bieber?”
I answered: “Oh no, for sure not that famous.”
She left in a huff, disgusted that I was not someone “famous” at the birthday party. You can’t please everybody, right?
Courtney: How important is it to always be improving and growing?
Justin: I can’t stand the feeling of being on a plateau. I don’t know for sure how to get off of one, all I know is that the longer I remain on an artistic or life “plateau”, I get real comfortable, and want to just pitch my little tent and stay perched up there forever, safely shielded from painful self-improvement.
I also know the joy of discovering something new, a new chord voicing, a new song, a new way to re-harmonize a piece of stale musical bread, etc. Finding that new thing is like discovering a little treasure cave, buried beneath jungle vines on the side of a cliff. It feels great, and it makes you want to venture inside, and the further in you go, the more you discover hiding there, stuff you’d never imagined existed before.
Pretty soon, you exhaust that cave’s possibilities, and it’s time to move on. To where? To another plateau! Hopefully this time you can still remember how good it feels to discover and grow, and will get off the plateau sooner than you did last time!
Courtney: What are your goals for the future?
Justin: I have a friend, a blues guitarist from New Orleans, named Dan. He once had a corporate day job, and went in for an interview for a promotion. The boss asked him that same question point blank: “Tell me, Dan, What are your goals for the future?”
Dan replied, in his humble way: “Well, I really just want to be a good husband and father”. The boss became visibly perturbed, ended the interview shortly thereafter, and Dan didn’t receive the promotion.
I learned a lot about priorities the day Dan told me that story.
So, here’s how I rank my goals for the future:
Courtney: How often and for how long do you practice?
Justin: For years, I would play up to five, six, seven hours a day, including personal practice and playing gigs with the band. It’s somewhat less now, but I still practice at least six days a week.
Courtney: What do you practice – exercises, new tunes, hard tunes, etc?
Justin: I have spent almost 20 years practicing scales, classical music, jazz improvisation, chord voicings, jazz standards, solo guitar arrangements, etc. I still do practice those things to some degree, but within the last few years I’ve really focused on developing my own “voice” on the guitar.
To word it differently, there is a time when you need to spend learning other people’s music. Then, gradually, there comes a time to create your OWN music.
It feels great inside when you finally hear your own, personal musical voice come out!
Interview with Montserrat Wadsworth
What childhood musical memories do you have?
Justin: This sounds ridiculous, but here goes…In New Mexico, as an infant, I used to bang my head against the headboard of the crib at night. I would bang my little noggin so hard that the crib- with me in it- would gradually scoot all the way across the smooth tile floor during the night.
What would you think if you walked in to find your kid on the other side of the room from where you put him? It happened so often that my parents took me in to see the doctor, who said: “This is certainly strange. I have heard, though, that it is a sign of musical talent.”
Some of my first guitar lessons were from a wonderful, beret-wearing mustached singer/guitarist from Greenwich Village, NYC, named Skip Grabow. We started with the Blues, and then Dylan, and then moved to the Beatles. So, those three ingredients: The Blues, Dylan, and The Beatles, were like my musical “meat and potatoes” growing up.
Montserrat: We all have certain gifts to share with others. Obviously yours is the gift of music. When did you realize that music was your “call” in life?
Justin: For me, the realization that music is part of what I was born to do has come very gradually, like the growth of a tree. Rather than a specific point when I made a single big decision, my life has been a series of thousands of small checkpoints along the path…
Slowly with each step, you learn more, and you grow into the person you are becoming. Meanwhile, you find that the path you’ve been searching for is the path that you’re already on. It’s a beautiful process that, just like a relationship or a garden, takes time and daily weeding and feeding.
Montserrat: The song “If You Try” talks about trading our fear for faith and following the voice inside us. I’m wondering if this song is a sort of an autobiography of your life. How hard is it/was it to trust in yourself to support your family through your music? What gave you the push to just dive in and give it a
Justin: I believe that all of us are born with gifts that are special and unique to us. There is a voice inside of all of us. Name it what you will, it’s real. It speaks to you throughout your whole life, like your own personal GPS. Yes, those lines from the song “If You Try” are my own story.
For me it has been a long, hard road. In 2004,my wife, Annie (who sings a duet with me on “God Only Made One of You”) and I decided to move to Dallas, TX so I could get a Master’s degree in music. I’ll never forget that frightening feeling of teetering over the edge of a leap of faith. Suddenly there I was, with my sweet wife and infant son, loading our meager possessions into a tiny, moldy Texas apartment in the pouring rain, no job, wondering how this was all going to work out. I went to school during the day and worked most nights in the city, playing music to provide for the family. My wife stretched one-dollar bills into ten-dollar bills, and we somehow made it through together.
I clearly recall sitting down in Dallas one afternoon after graduating, just to ponder my lack of clear direction in life. “The voice” came into my mind as clear as a lightning bolt: “Make an album”. He might as well have told me “Climb Mt. Everest barefoot… in shorts”.
As a freelance session guitarist, scraping up a living playing on jingles and in jazz clubs, I couldn’t conceive at that moment how to pay for such a mammoth expense. It seemed like an impossible request, made by my buddy “the voice”.
After getting together what I felt were my best songs, I booked the initial studio sessions for the album “Beautiful World”, in good faith that the money to pay for it would come. It wasn’t until after those sessions were booked that some of the various performance opportunities that helped us pay for the making of the record came up. In other words, I had to believe first, then act.
Montserrat: Your songs are upbeat with the underlying message of hope- in ourselves, in others, in the world. Does this feeling of hope come naturally to you or is it something you have learned through experiences in your life?
Justin: Well, my career hasn’t been a rose garden, at least not at first. I know what it’s like to have to fight a club owner for money he owes you…and lose. I know what it’s like to feel waves of anxiety almost overcome me, after losing important jobs to circumstances beyond my control. I know what it’s like to walk the long, arduous path of a career in the music industry. It’s not been easy, ever.
However, after all of those tough times, I’ve always had something come through at the eleventh hour. In other words, in the very end, sometimes when I thought I couldn’t go on much longer, things ALWAYS worked out, there was an answer, some solution that would seem to come from above. I learned and grew as a human being, father, and writer through these challenges.
So, I’ve learned to choose hope over doubt, through experience. That said, I guess I was created with a little extra helping of optimism, bordering on pollyanna-ness inside me! But seriously, though- in those moments where you come dangerously close to giving up, it often means that you are literally around the corner from the finish line…you just didn’t know it!
Montserrat: What musical artists have influenced you and your bluesy style? What music are you listening to right now?
Justin: As far as early influences, if I could pinpoint one, it would have to be Eric Clapton. A close second would be James Taylor. However, it’s honestly been over a decade since I really listened to them. I love J.S. Bach, I REALLY love jazz, and most of what I listen to these days is world music- music from Brazil, Africa, Latin America. I’m also a big fan of Justin Bieber!
Montserrat: And finally, what is the best thing about being a husband and father?
Justin: The best thing about being a husband and father: It centers your life on true priorities. For example, one evening a few years ago, I took my oldest son, James, along with me to go perform a solo acoustic show here in Texas. He was sitting down coloring with crayons when he overheard a lady next to him say to her husband: “Who would you say the greatest guitarist in the world is?” Her husband answered: “ Oh, I don’t know, probably Clapton.”
To her shock, my little son James spun around and exclaimed, matter-of-factly: “No, he’s not. MY DAD is the greatest guitarist in the world.”
Both the lady and her husband laughed out loud, and so did I. However, on a serious note- to know that my son thinks highly of me as a person-
that is a far greater reward than being the world’s best at anything.
Interview With Shannon Staker
Shannon: At what age did you know you had fallen in love with music and knew that you wanted this to be your career?
Justin: You’re going to laugh, but do you remember when Michael Jackson’s “Bad” Album came out in 1987? At 9 years old, and my dream was to perform “Man in the Mirror” on stage at my elementary school in New Hampshire. I mentally rehearsed how I was going to approach the principal, Mr. Bettencourt, about me doing a karaoke concert for the school.
I guess in a way, I always knew, however, just like anything worthwhile, it’s been a long, arduous process.
It all started when my aunt Monica Cash was de-junking her house and she sent us some stuff in the mail: a yellow camping backpack from the 70’s and a cheap nylon string Spanish guitar. By this time, we now lived on a farm in upstate New York. At a family reunion, my Aunt Rosemary Cash gave me my first guitar lesson, and wrote out 10 or 12 chords on a piece of lined notebook paper.
Since we lived way out in the country without video games, internet, or even a TV ( !), I would try to sit and teach myself the chords. At first the “F” chord seemed physically impossible for anyone with less than six fingers on one hand.
Later, in high school, in Denver, CO, my dad and I didn’t get along well. A friend of his suggested that he take guitar lessons with me. So, being the great dad that he is, he signed us BOTH up for blues guitar lessons with a guy named Skip Grabow.
We took lessons in an old instrument shop called Acoustic Music Revival. It was one of my favorite places in the world. Tiny, nondescript iron bar door with a clangy brass bell, creaky wood floors, guitars hanging everywhere, the scent of cedar in the air, guys with mustaches and cool hats sitting around jamming on the blues and Dylan songs, I mean this place had SOUL. It was like as real as it gets, completely off the beaten path. And all of the guys there could play, really play.
That one store and the guys there: Skip, and Bob Laughlin, the owner, basically changed my life completely. I must have learned a hundred songs, how to fingerpick, how to sing, how to jam with others, etc. They would also hold acoustic concerts there on the weekends. It was like a little slice of Nashville in the Rocky Mountains. They were kind enough to let a kid like me make mistakes and generous/patient enough to share everything they knew with me.
Bob was even kind enough to hire me on the staff as a teacher during college, which is where I met my wife, one day when she just waltzed into the store for a blues guitar lesson. So, I always joke with Bob every time I see him that I owe him double. He gave me a career in music, and more importantly, the place that I met my wife!
Shannon: How do you juggle your three boys, your wife, and your life? (Three boys can bring a load of crazy and fun to any situation… I know, I’ve got four!)
Justin: We are getting better at juggling, but occasionally we drop stuff. I think it’s a learned process. I’ve seen a lot of guys put music first and lose their family. For me, no amount of so-called music “success” holds a candle to watching your son make his first basket in a game, or teaching your kids how to catch sunfish down by the river at night.
I’m not saying I’m a pro at this, but Annie and I are faced constantly with challenges where we have to decide to put the family before the career. We get better at it each time we make the right decision, and I sorely regret it every time I make the wrong decision.
Shannon: We would LOVE to know where most of your writing gets done from (your home? your office? the car?)
Justin: Inspiration is a funny little thing. It’s like Peter Pan trying to catch Tinkerbell. I don’t know how to control it, but I do know how to be ready for it. I carry a small notebook with me everywhere, because I’ve had ideas come to me in the strangest places. In the car, while I’m actually performing, overhearing a conversation of two strangers, in dreams, in the shower, during a movie…
So, for me, the process of creating something has two basic macro steps. The first, most valuable, and hardest to obtain, is the inspiration. The best ideas seem to come like a lighting flash, often with a large song section fully formed, sometimes just lyrics, more than often some kind of musical idea, sometimes just a little snippet of a hook. This is like the germ or seed that starts the whole process.
So to recap, the inspiration stage can happen anywhere, you just gotta be ready for it and write it down when it comes.
Where the rubber really hits the road, though, is the next stage, which is the construction stage. This is where the heavy lifting occurs and you cover your elbows in grease. After you have an initial idea, you try to explore every angle of the title possible, deciding on the one with the most emotional impact for you, the one that rings most true to your life experience.
When I wrote the Song “ God Only Made One of You”, the inspiration stage was strong and clear for the first half of the chorus. It took me two entire years to build the rest of the song in the construction stage. Draft after draft, auditioning new melodies, throwing out lyrics that didn’t contribute to the overall theme or weren’t as powerful as they could be, changing the overall theme, changing the key from C up a half step to Db, figuring out the spookiest sounding chord voicing for the Bb minor on the pre chorus, etc.
Here is a link to the video:
It’s a lot like building prototype clay car models, dozens if needed, and then the real car gets built when you are ready to record. So, now that I’ve totally digressed off into outer space, your original question was “Where do you write?” The answer is: inspiration writing happens any and everywhere, but the construction stage happens in my office at home, just me and that guitar for as long as it takes to polish that stubborn rock.
Shannon: Who has had the most impact on your life? Why?
Justin: I guess I’ve already mentioned most of them in this interview already, wouldn’t ya know it. My Dad, my teacher Skip Grabow, Bob Laughlin and the guys at Acoustic Music Revival, my wife Annie, and our kids.
I should add that Ray Smith, The director of Jazz Studies at BYU, was also a tremendous influence on me, not just musically, but as a person as well. He was my first and finest example of someone who was able to make a living in music and put his family first. And, Ray is an absolutely burning musician.
Shannon: Say it’s a normal Saturday at the Cash home… what’s going down?
Justin: All three boys climbing into bed with me and Annie to snuggle (WAY too early for a Saturday, I should add), then an inevitable pillow fight that turns into semi-friendly wrestling match or little cowboys riding on Dad and me bucking them off like a horse.
Then we might just shoot BB guns in our makeshift backyard shooting range (don’t tell the neighbors that we do that). Then we’ll eat some pizza and I’ll take off with the band to play that night.