Q&A: Country-music legend Bob Wootton

The legendary Johnny Cash guitarist makes his Minnesota State Fair debut with Six Mile Grove

It’s one thing to say you’re going to be famous. It’s another to actually pull it off. In 1968, Bob Wootton heard Johnny Cash was playing a show in Arkansas. An aspiring singer and guitar player (and die-hard Cash fan) from Oklahoma, Wootton quit his job, hitched a ride, and ended up not only meeting Johnny Cash, but stepping in as his guitarist for the show—and the next 30 years.

From that night on, Wootton and Cash were a team. They did everything together: made movies (Wootton was Cash’s stunt double), appeared on talk shows, met royalty, and fished—a lot. In 2004, months after Cash passed away, Wootton was convinced by Minnesota-based Americana band Six Mile Grove to play in a weekend-long Cash tribute concert at the Cabooze. The sold-out show proved to be wildly popular, and the men have been playing, recording, and touring together ever since.

On Thursday, August 25, and Friday, August 26, Six Mile Grove and Wootton take their show to the Minnesota State Fair, promoting their soon-to-be-released record, “Guaranteed Cash,” and proving that even though Cash is no longer alive, his spirit and unique sound live on.

To find out more about his journey from guitar-star hopeful to country-music legend, Minnesota Monthly spoke with Wootton about his career, his relationship with Cash, and how he got connected with Six Mile Grove.

MM: How’d you first learn to play guitar?
Bob Wootton: My dad played mandolin and he didn’t have anybody to play with him, so when I got old enough he taught me. I got my start singing gospel songs in church with him.

MM: Were you always a Johnny Cash fan?
BW: Oh, yes. I loved that sound that they made. It was different than everybody else. I started buying his records when he first started making them in 1954. Heck, I had 10 Johnny Cash records before I had anything to play them on.

MM: How did you go from being a fan to playing with Cash, eventually becoming his right-hand man for 30 years?
BW: It was September 1968. I lived in Oklahoma and heard that John was doing a concert at a Governor Rockefeller rally in Arkansas. A guy at the club I was playing told me he was a bus driver and asked if I wanted to ride with him and a bunch of delegates up there. “Boy, do I!” I said, and that night I quit my job. My boss asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was going to work for Johnny Cash.

MM: How were you so certain you’d even get to meet Johnny, let alone play with him?
BW: His guitar player had died three months earlier; he had nobody to play guitar for him. But I had learned all their songs. Before the show, June (Cash) happened to be talking with this girl I was with and she told her all about me. So June called Johnny from on stage, told him about me, and he told me to grab my guitar and get up with him.

MM: Weren’t you nervous?
BW: I’ve never gotten nervous. Not even that first time I played with him. I think it’s because I knew I could do it. He told June later that he knew I could do it, too.

MM: Sounds like you had quite the connection.
BW: We were like brothers. When I first went to work for him, he wouldn’t go anywhere unless I went with him.

MM: Did you ever think your life would turn out like it has?
BW: I never dreamed of this. I was his stuntman in movies. I’ve met the Queen and Presidents Carter, George Bush Sr., George Bush Jr. I’ve been on David Letterman twice. Every time John was asked to do something, he’d say, “I ain’t going on without this guy.”

MM: What did you guys do when you weren’t on tour?
BW: Fish. We went deep-sea fishing in the Bahamas and Honolulu, but my favorite place to fish was in this big old pond behind his house that was full of catfish. We’d spend a lot of time out there; we’d talk for hours.

MM: Any good stories?
BW: Well, there is one I like to tell. One day, I went over to John’s house and decided to fish while he finished a few things up. About 10 minutes later, this guy comes walking down the stairs carrying a fishing pole. I say hi, tell him there’s a good spot a ways down, and keep fishing. After about an hour, we hadn’t caught anything and decided to go out on the boat. The whole time we’re out, we never talked. When we still hadn’t caught anything a couple hours later, we headed in.

When I got back to the house, John asked how I did. I told him we didn’t catch anything. “We? Who’s we?” he asks. So I describe the guy I’d been fishing with, and he looked at me and goes, “You don’t know who that is?” I said no, and he says, “That’s Bob Dylan.” I had no idea I was out fishing all day with Bob Dylan.

A couple minutes later we went downstairs and cut an album with him.

MM: Can you slip by people? Or do you constantly get stopped?
BW: Everyone says I sound just like John, and I look just like John. People come up to me at airports a lot and ask, “Has anyone ever told you how much you look like Johnny Cash?” I used to egg them on and make them really get into it, but I don’t do that anymore.

MM: This September marks the eighth anniversary of Johnny’s death. What’s it been like for you not to have him around?
BW: I miss him terribly. There are certain times when I can do a song just fine, but then there’s always that one time when I get up on stage and it’s all I can do to keep from crying. When you’re with somebody for 30 years, it’s hard to let go.

MM: Do you have a favorite song of his you like to perform?
BW: One of my favorites is “I Just Thought You’d Like to Know.” It’s a little love song with a tack piano on it. It’s just really nice. And for a while I’d always want to do “A Boy Named Sue.” Johnny, though, he hated it—thought it was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard. It was his biggest-selling record, though.

MM: You’re playing with Six Mile Grove at the State Fair this year, and just cut the soon-to-be-released record “Guaranteed Cash” with them. How did you all get connected?
BW: I met their friend, Jeff Braegelmann, a while back. When John died, Jeff and Brandon came to the funeral. In 2007, they called me and tried to get me to come to Minnesota and be part of their “Cash Only” Johnny Cash tribute show. At first I didn’t want to, but eventually I agreed. I got such a great response from the crowd that I thought, “Man, maybe this is what I’m gonna do.” A while later, we went in their basement, cut an album, took a couple pictures, and started touring.

MM: What’s it like playing with them?
BW: We have a good time—they’re like family to me. They’re just good all-American boys. There’s nothing fancy about them and they don’t try to be something they’re not. And that’s what I like about them, because that’s how I am. I try not to act like somebody, because I’m not. I’m just lucky I get to do what I do.

Six Mile Grove and Bob Wootton
Minnesota State Fair: Leine Lodge Bandshell
Thursday, August 25, and Friday, August 26, 10:30 a.m. and 11:45 a.m.

  Click here to listen to an advanced track of “Big River” off the Bob Wootton and Six Mile Grove album Guaranteed Cash, due out before their tour.

For more on Six Mile Grove, visit their website: sixmilegrove.com