This is a story about how what might have been is sometimes less sweet than what was. It’s also about how lives can intersect in a beautiful way.
My daughter’s father-in-law, Frank Fischer, was a young man of about 30 working on a turkey farm near Riverside, California in the early 1970s. He would sometimes write songs. About this time, he wrote “Gospel Plow”, a prayer that the soil of one’s life might be turned over to produce a better harvest. A few years after he wrote it, he realized that the song would be perfect for Johnny Cash. Cash, who grew up on a farm, never wavered in his deep, abiding faith despite a fierce battle with addictions for most of his life.
By the late 1970s, Frank had moved to Yakima, WA. He met a fellow who managed the stage at the State Fair, where Johnny Cash would be playing. “I can get you backstage to give him your song,” the man told Frank.
WhenFrank arrived to the stage, someone told him, “Well, usually the performers hang around, but Johnny and June (Carter Cash) went back to the hotel earlier….But I know where they are staying!”
Frank went to the hotel and camped out in the lobby. After a while, an employee asked why he was there and, hearing the reason, told him that the Cashes had already left. Frank suspected this wasn’t the truth. A young desk clerk kindly confirmed on the sly that indeed they were still there.
Later, the young man told him they had probably gone to bed, but that he should come back early. Frank arrived about 5:00 A.M. the next morning and when he saw a black limo pull up out back, he thought something might be happening. The young desk clerk came to him and said, “Listen, he’ll be out soon. Stand right here and he’ll come right by you.”
He heard a door open, and June came down the hall. When she saw him, she smiled and said, “I know why you’re here.” Frank nervously told her about the song and she said,“I’m sure he would like to hear it.”
A few minutes later, Johnny came down the hall, wearing blue jeans and black patent leather shoes. Frank asked if he could play “Gospel Plow”. “Sure” came the deep baritone response.
Though Frank doesn’t have a natural vibrato in his voice, his nerves caused his voice to waver as he sang the song. Frank, without a shoulder strap for his guitar, dropped to his knee to play the song. He fixed his eyes on Cash’s shoes, but could tell there was a crowd gathering.
When he finished, Johnny said, “That’s just what I needed to hear on a Sunday morning.” Frank had written down the lyrics and music and offered them to Johnny. Johnny said, “I don’t read music. Tell you what, just go to your kitchen and record it the best you can on a boombox.” He asked June to give Frank their address and instructed that the package be marked, “As requested by Johnny Cash”. Frank still has the hand-written address.
Frank’s intention was to do a good job of recording the song despite Cash having told him a kitchen recording would be fine. Months and then years went by and Frank never got around to sending the song.
When he tells the story today, Frank says not sending the song was a mistake. We, his audience in 2016, wipe away tears after hearing “Gospel Plow” and tell him what Johnny had to say about his song is enough.