Taking up a position among some fallen trees, Johnny Cash raised his Mannlicher rifle to his shoulder and bolted a round into the chamber. The guide with binoculars said the animal some 200 metres away was a young cow – a female moose. Was Cash okay with that? “You can’t eat horns,” replied the singer-hunter.
The Folsom Prison Blues singer never shot a man in Reno, but he did bag a moose in Newfoundland.
It happened in the first days of October, 1961. Because the moose-tracking jaunt to a logging camp in Canada’s youngest province was underwritten by Field & Stream magazine, vivid professional photographs documenting the trip were made public. Two months ago, the masters of dozens of more pictures resurfaced. They represent the earliest known photographs taken of Cash and Saul Holiff, his manager from 1960 to 1973.
Holiff, who died in 2005, was a fast-talking Canadian concert promoter who arranged the moose hunt. At the time, Cash was at a low point, relatively, in his career. He had released his hit I Walk the Line back in 1956. His latest single, The Rebel – Johnny Yuma, was on the outside looking in on the Billboard Hot 100, at No. 108.
A week before the trip to Newfoundland, on Sept. 28, the singer had played a charity show at Toronto’s Massey Hall. His performance wasn’t strong. He apologized to the audience for his rough voice, citing laryngitis. Backstage, according to a report in The Globe and Mail, he nervously twisted and untwisted a white, ruffled shirt that was soaked with perspiration. He had a fondness for stimulants.
A few days later, Cash, Holiff and backup singer Rose Maddox flew from New York to Gander, N.L., where they met up with the rest of their party that included fiddler Gordon Terry, guitarist Luther Perkins and country and western great Merle Travis.
Piling into station wagons, they headed into the province’s western interior. They stocked up on groceries in Millertown before proceeding to a cabin as guests of a logging camp near Victoria Lake. With them was an American reporter-photographer and a local hunting guide, Heman Whalen.
Whalen was a wildlife management officer with the Department of Mines, Agriculture and Resources. Known as Newfoundland’s “moose whisperer,” he was Cash’s exclusive guide. They were both 29, each former air force men.
“He was the guy next door,” Whalen said of Cash, speaking to The Globe and Mail this week from St. John’s. “He was no freeloader, I tell you that. You get what you work for, he had that attitude.”
Cash was an accomplished rifleman who hunted for food, not sport. He took his moose down with one shot, through the lungs. Because the cow took off after being hit, Cash thought he’d missed his shot. Whalen told him to wait while he circled around to look for the animal.
“I found what I expected," recalled Whalen, “which was a dead moose.” The 500-pound beast yielded 300 pounds of first-rate meat.
At one point during the trip, Cash raced back to his wife and kids in California. A pack of coyotes in the neighbourhood of their new home was scaring the children. After checking in on his family, Cash flew back to Newfoundland.
At night in the cabin, after dinner and after the dishes were taken care of, the musicians would strum tunes and relax with adult beverages. “Merle Travis did a fair bit of singing,” said Whalen. “Johnny had laryngitis, but he did the best he could. And when Luther Perkins and Merle with his 12-string started playing I Walk the Line, everybody stopped to listen."
After the expedition, Cash gifted Whalen his hunting knife. It was a valuable keepsake that Whalen used all his life before recently giving the blade to his oldest son.
“Johnny Cash was a very respectable man,” said Whalen, whose favourite Cash record is Sunday Mornin' Coming Down. “He had talent. He loved to sing. And when he wasn’t singing, he was humming.”
The trip was historic musically, for it solidified the partnership between Cash and his new manager. The singer had presented the native of London, Ont., with a coffee-stained yellow legal pad. Scribbled on it was a list of the duties he expected Holiff to do for him. (Holiff would not be required to take a bullet for his famous client, but he did endure a nasty gash above his eye when his rifle recoiled during the moose shoot.)
The two shook hands on their deal. Holiff guaranteed Cash he’d have him in Carnegie Hall within a year. He made good on that promise when the comebacking country icon played the prestigious venue on May 10, 1962.
Though Cash had hoped to serve Newfoundland moose at the reception dinner for the Carnegie show, it wasn’t to be. Holiff supplied bison meat instead. But that’s another story.
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Editor’s note: A photo caption in an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Cash was signing autographs. He was, in fact, looking at a small axe.