Some people may call it destiny. Others may say there were divine forces at work. This writer calls it spiritually astounding in the most positive sense of the word. Whatever it was, guitarist Bob Wootton inherently knew at an early age that his life’s calling was to play music with Johnny Cash. The amazing thing is he achieved that goal, serving for nearly thirty years as Cash’s lead guitarist, replacing the late Luther Perkins, who had been killed in a tragic house fire. Bob even worked as Cash’s screen double in movies and television shows, and eventually became Cash’s brother-in-law by marrying June Carter’s sister, Anita. The two men shared an extremely strong bond for decades that continues to this day, six years after Cash’s death.

After Cash retired in 1997, Wootton left the music business and drove a tour bus for several years, and participated in a Cash tribute show where he sang many of Cash’s songs. Along the way, Bob was elected to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and was also recognized as one of the Top 1000 guitarists of all time. There’s a movement going on right now to get him elected to the Musician’s Hall of Fame.

In 2006, after the aforementioned tribute show fired Wootton’s desire to keep Cash’s sound alive, he reorganized the Tennessee Three with original drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland (who left in 2007), and assumed the role of Cash himself, playing and singing the songs in the style of the Man in Black, much to the delight of Cash fans worldwide. Today, he plays about seventy shows a year with a crack band that includes his wife, Vicky, on acoustic guitar and vocals, along with daughters Montana and Scarlett, who sing and play guitar. The apples clearly don’t fall far from the tree, as they say.

Let’s start at the beginning: how and when did you discover the guitar?

I guess I was about eleven when I started playing. My dad played guitar; he was one of seven children in his family. He taught me my first chords, and we played together a lot. He’d call out chord changes to me, and I’d try and make them. His family all played music in the mountains of Arkansas. I grew up with hillbilly music, playing on the back porch. One day, I was out there, and my mother called me into the house. She said, “There’s someone on the radio that sounds like you.” It was the first time I’d heard Johnny Cash, and I instantly loved his sound. My voice was lower than most boys my age, so I guess I did sound like him even back then.

I said to my mother, “Who is that?” She said, “Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Three.” From then on, every penny I had I spent on Johnny Cash records: 78s, 45s and albums, and I still have them all, including promo copies and other rare things. The first record I ever owned was one by Johnny Cash. I just knew I was going to play with him one day, and I loved Luther’s guitar playing, so I listened to the records over and over, and copied that boom-chicka- boom sound just like Luther.

Cash and Wootton, early 1980s.
Would you also tell us about your “audition” with Johnny?

I went to Fayetteville, Arkansas on September 17, 1968 to see Johnny, and most of his band had been stranded at the airport. Now, it was show time and no band. The only ones there were June Carter and Fluke Holland. This girl I was with went up to June and said, “This guy can play guitar Luther-style.” So, June took me over to John who was onstage already, and we talked for a minute, I borrowed Carl Perkins’s guitar, and went onstage with Johnny. Luckily, I knew every song Johnny called out. I was nervous, but it worked out well. After we were done, Johnny said he might be calling me at some point to do some playing together. He called me a few days later and asked me if I was ready to join his band. I was, and I feel it was predestined by God. I was at the right place at the right time. Johnny always said that God sent me to him, that he was afraid he would never be able to reproduce that sound without Luther.

I always played simple. I took what Luther did and added my own twist to it. Johnny always said I sounded like a combination of Luther and Duane Eddy.

You spent thirty years working with Johnny. What were some of the high points?

It was just wonderful. You see, I always wanted to be a singer and guitar player, and Johnny would call me up to do a leadvocal once in a while, which I liked. Johnny’s TV show was really something; being on TV every week was great. That was a dream to me. We did a lot of shows with other stars, like George Jones and Waylon & Willie. I was like a kid in a candy shop, getting to meet a lot of these people. One of my dearest friends was Tammy Wynette. It really hurt me when she passed away.

Let’s talk about your equipment. What was your first guitar?

It was an archtop Regal, and I bought a Fender amp to go with it. I still have it. It’s my prized possession.