'Memories in Black'

November 17, 2005--Posted at 6:45 PM CST

JONESBORO--One of the most anticipated movies of the year premiers tomorrow night in theatres across the country. The film 'Walk The Line' is of particular interest to Region 8, as it details the life and career of native son and American icon, Johnny Cash. Two local men who knew Cash well as his career was taking off.

Musicians Sonny Burgess of Newport and Billy Lee Riley of Jonesboro were both Sun Records label-mates with Cash in the 1950s.

Johnny Cash was one of the most imposing and influential figures in country music. With his deep resonant, baritone voice, tagged with guitar he had a basic but distinctive sound. Cash was born in Kingsland, AR in 1932, so his connections to the music of the south were inherent. He wanted to be a gospel singer, but Sun Records founder Sam Phillips had his own idea. Cash signed with Sun in 1955 and over the next 50 years, Cash would go in and out of popularity, but in the end, would end up on top.

"Johnny Cash was Johnny Cash, that is all I have to say. That is the way that I can sum him up. He was just Johnny Cash and nobody else," said Billy Lee Riley.

Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Riley have known Cash 1955. Both are Region 8 natives. They began their musical careers at Sun Records just after Cash had his first hit.

"Cash was simply different than everybody else and he wasn't rock-a-Billy. I wouldn't call him rock-a-Billy, I would call him more country but maybe more folksy," said Burgess.

Burgess continued, "He was pretty smart. The only thing that he messed up was he got on the little pills when he went out to California."

Both Burgess and Riley opened shows for Cash up until his move to California in 1964. And during that time, women flocked to the three. But Cash had something that they didn't have.

"I don't know if he was any different form any of the rest of us; he liked them and so did we. I think that Johnny Cash was the only one that made out though. He probably had a little more money than we had," said Riley.

"I think everything was about fun. With me I know it was the music first, the ladies and at that time I nipped a little bit and so that is they way it was," said Riley.

Those are the stories that Director James Mangold hopes to portray in 'Walk The Line' which premieres Friday. The film chronicles the life of Johnny Cash from his early days on an Arkansas cotton farm to his rise to fame with Sun Records in Memphis.

I asked Burgess and Riley if they thought Cash could be accurately depicted in film.

Burgess said, "I don't no. It is like the Jerry Lee Lewis movie. Do you think that depicted Jerry Lee? Nope. It made him look like and idiot. He has got his faults, but he is not an idiot. He was a great talent and so was Cash."

"I think a lot of the reason for this is the people that are doing these movies are not doing the movies per say as your life. They are doing the movies to sell tickets. And that is why a lot of these movies that you see of a lot of these people, they turn out to be a comedy of errors. They're comedies," said Riley.

"I'm glad that he did what he did. He done well and had a good time," said Burgess.

Actor Joaquin Phoenix portrays Cash in the film. He was hand-picked by Cash to play the role shortly before the singer's death in 2003. Both Burgess and Riley continue to perform their music today, both at home and abroad in Europe.