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The Surprise of a Song

I distinctly remember getting a call from Lou Rubin, one of Johnny Cash's agents. He said, "Now that you (Harpers) have a signed contract for this new book by John, he would like you to come to the Tucson area to work with him on the manuscript while he is acting in a movie. So I immediately packed up and headed to the hotel in Tucson where everyone in the film was staying. John and I worked on the manuscript during the day (it became the novel The Man in White: A Novel about St. Paul) and then we hung out in the evenings with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings, who were in the remake of this movie, Stagecoach. One morning I got an early morning call from John; he wanted me to visit his hotel room to share something with me. I dressed quickly and raced to his room. He was sitting in a chair with a yellow legal pad in his hands and said, "I wrote a song for the book and for you." I smiled, of course, but then he laid the yellow pad down, picked up his guitar and sang, "The Man in White." (You can listen to it on YouTube.) I asked him if he had written that song just this morning and also told him that I really liked it. And that it would be great to use in promoting the novel (back in the '80s that was not easy to do and we really didn't figure out how to do that). He said, "Yes, it came to me this morning and I jotted it down," and he showed me his yellow pad with all of the words clearly transcribed. I had a moment when I realized why songwriters/musicians were such good prose writers. The musicality of language is in their bones. And John was a very good songwriter, something that doesn't get talked about much. I have never forgotten that little lesson that John made clear to me.

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