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Robert (Bob) Wootton (1942–2017)

Robert (Bob) Wootton was a musician best known for having been Johnny Cash’s backing guitarist for thirty years. In addition to having played on most of Cash’s albums made after 1968, he released music with other members of Cash’s band, the Tennessee Three. He also worked as a driver for musical acts and as a stunt man.

Bob Wootton was born on March 4, 1942, in Red Branch, which is a part of the town of Paris (Logan County). He was one of eight children of Rubin C. Wootton, who was a coal miner, and Noma Lucilla Moore Wootton. His father, who also played mandolin, taught him to play the guitar. Wootton’s first musical performances were in church. Among his earliest guitar influences were Billy Byrd of Ernie Tubb’s Texas Troubadours and Merle Travis.

In 1950, Wootton moved with his family to Taft, California, just southwest of Bakersfield, which became a country music mecca later in the decade. In 1956, Wootton heard Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” for the first time. He quickly bought a record of the song, even though he did not own a record player. Wootton became a Cash fanatic and taught himself to play exactly like Cash’s guitarist, Luther Perkins of the Tennessee Three.

In 1958, Wootton’s father, who was searching for work, moved the family to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Wootton graduated from high school two years later. Wootton joined the army, training as an artilleryman, but he was far more interested in pursuing music than a military career. During his fifteen months in Korea, Wootton learned more Cash tunes from a friend who played guitar. He also started a band, named Johnny and the Ramrods, consisting of fellow soldiers. When he left the army, Wootton spent his military pay on guitar equipment.

Wootton returned to Tulsa, where he worked as truck driver and bartender while pursuing music. In 1966, he saw Cash perform in Tulsa at Cain’s Ballroom. Wootton met Luther Perkins after the show and had his picture taken with him. Over time, Wootton’s band the Comancheros became a fixture at Tulsa live venues.

In August 1968 in Tennessee, Luther Perkins died after being injured during a house fire. With this came the opportunity for Wootton to join Cash’s band. Unable to contact Cash by phone, he traveled to Arkansas in September 1968 to see Cash perform in Fayetteville (Washington County). A rain storm kept Cash’s lead guitarist Carl Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant grounded, and the equipment arrived ahead of the performers. With Wootton sitting in the front row, Cash—himself a guitarist of limited ability—was forced to go on stage with only his drummer. With no sign of Perkins or Grant, Wootton’s girlfriend asked June Carter Cash if Wootton could sit in with the band. Cash agreed, and he was amazed to find that Wootton knew note-for-note—in the style of Luther Perkins—every song he wanted to play. After the show, Wootton refused any money for the performance. He said the thrill of being on stage with Cash was payment enough.

Cash asked Wootton to play in Harrison (Boone County) with him two days later. Although he was far more nervous at his second performance with Cash, he again played well. Cash agreed to let Wootton tour with him for six months on a probationary basis. Wootton played in Cash’s band from that time until the singer’s retirement from touring in 1997 due to health problems. “Bob was a godsend,” Marshall Grant would later write.

Wootton played with Cash on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album. Wootton also performed on Cash’s top-selling At San Quentin live album and worked every week on ABC’s The Johnny Cash Show, which aired from 1969 to 1971. In 1970, Wootton and the other two members of the Tennessee Three released an album, The Sound Behind Johnny Cash, which consisted of instrumental renditions of classic Cash songs; it was the only album the Tennessee Three released without Cash. In the 1970s and 1980s, Wootton also served as Cash’s stunt double in movies and television roles. In 1974, Wootton married singer Anita Carter (the sister of June Carter Cash); the couple later divorced.

After Cash’s retirement from touring in 1997, Wootton worked briefly in security in Nashville, Tennessee. He also drove tour buses for bands such as the Smashing Pumpkins. Wootton did not participate in the recordings Cash did with the producer Rick Rubin in the 1990s and 2000s. After Cash’s death in 2003, Wootton and Fluke Holland hoped to obtain a settlement from the Cash estate. Unsuccessful, Wootton instead decided to tour with Holland, the other still-active member of the Tennessee Three (as bassist Marshall Grant had been fired from Cash’s band in 1980 and had since turned to management). For several years, Wootton and Holland played and recorded classic songs from the Cash catalog, including We Still Miss Someone in 2005, seeking to keep the original Johnny Cash sound alive.

In 2006, Wootton was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. That same year, he recorded, with Holland, The Sound Must Go On, which again featured Cash songs. In 2008, Holland and Wootton stopped touring together, but Wootton continued to play and record. His stage act has featured his wife, Vicky (whom he married in 1983), and daughters Scarlett and Montana, who are also musicians. Calling himself “The Man behind the Man in Black,” in 2012, Wootton released the album Guaranteed Cash with the Minnesota-based band Six Mile Grove.

Wootton died on April 9, 2017.  He is buried at Hendersonville Memory Gardens.

For additional information:
Kienzle, Rich. “Bob Wootton: ‘Boom-Chicka’ and the Man in Black.” Vintage Guitar (July 2008): 32–33, 120–124.

Miller, Stephen. Johnny Cash: The Life of an American Icon. New York: Omnibus Press, 2003.

Waddell, Hugh. I Still Miss Someone: Friends & Family Remember Johnny Cash. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2004.

Wren, Christopher S. Winners Got Scars Too: The Life and Legends of Johnny Cash. New York: Dial Press, 1971.

Colin Edward Woodward
Center for Arkansas History and Culture

Last Updated 4/20/2017

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