Book review: Johnny Cash The Life

December 5, 2013

Johnny Cash rode a boyhood dream and three chords to country music stardom. But as Robert Hilburn’s definitive biography vividly chronicles, that dream spawned a sizable brood of nightmares.

Cash grew up poor, mostly in Dyess, Ark., where his parents took part in a government-backed farmland “colonization” program. While poets, philosophers and singers rhapsodize about living close to the land, Cash knew better. Working in the cotton fields was hard, and the early death of his brother in a sawmill accident further darkened the charms of rural life. Soon enough, he decided he’d rather pluck a guitar than a chicken and dreamed of singing on the radio.

The dream was somewhat audacious, for Cash was no musical prodigy. He left high school not for Nashville but for Pontiac, Mich., where he worked in the auto industry. This was followed by a stint in the military that took him to Germany, where he helped intercept Soviet Morse code messages. He formed a band on his return and performed his first radio gig in May 1955 at age 23. According to Hilburn, it was an amateurish performance, though his first recordings were better (and should have been: “Cry, Cry, Cry” required 35 takes). He was on his way.

Hilburn, a former music critic for the Los Angeles Times, interviewed Cash often during his journalistic career, and, while an admirer, he goes fairly light on the whitewash. He tells, in great and sometimes harrowing detail, how Cash’s professional advancement and personal decline blossomed simultaneously.

One red-letter day in that decline occurred in the fall of 1957, when a fiddle player gave Cash his first amphetamine after hearing him complain about the exhaustion that accompanied constant touring. Cash, who started smoking when he was 10, was quick to form a new addiction, later telling a friend that “one pill was too many and a thousand wasn’t enough.”

Nor was he a slacker in the skirt-chasing competition, despite having expressed undying fidelity to his first wife, Vivian, in his early hit, “I Walk the Line.” Still, he was far more restrained than musical contemporary and fabled horndog Elvis Presley. “One night,” Cash recalled, “we counted nine girls that he had sex with in the dressing room.”

To no surprise, Cash’s first marriage was not one for the record books, due in part to an evolving romance with June Carter, also married at the time. The turmoil was hard not only on Vivian and their four daughters, but on the local wildlife as well. In 1965, after retreating to the Los Padres National Forest to escape home life, he started a fire that killed most of the condor population.

The rings of suffering spread yet further. Fans struggled through mediocre performances; at times, Cash missed more gigs than he made. Yet he suffered the most, not only from the ravages of addiction, which dropped his weight to 125 pounds, but from the agonies of not living up to his Southern Baptist convictions.

Cash’s desire for redemption seemed as powerful as his desire for drugs. He and June, who married in 1968, became regulars at Billy Graham crusades, “testifying” before nearly 2 million people, despite ongoing drug use and a soft reading of the commandment against adultery. Cash, perhaps in a generous mood, described himself as “a C+ Christian.”

He earned much higher marks for his music, though, as Hilburn reminds us, many of his most iconic songs were written by others, including “A Boy Named Sue” (Shel Silverstein), “Ring of Fire” (June Carter and Merle Kilgore) and “I Still Miss Someone” (which was “mostly written” by a nephew). His signature song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” relied so heavily on “Crescent City Blues,” by Gordon Jenkins, that Cash eventually paid Jenkins $75,000 to waive his composer rights. Nonetheless, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But he also went through a long recording slump, earning recognition by USA Today for making one of the 10 worst albums of 1987 (“Johnny Cash Is Coming To Town”). Fortune smiled again in 1993 when he met producer Rick Rubin, with whom he made a series of sometimes stark recordings that ended his career on a high note. In perhaps the most searing section of the book, Hilburn recounts the making the 2002 video for Cash’s version of rocker Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” Cash was in ill health, and June had learned the day before that she had a leak in a heart valve. She died in 2003; Cash held on four more hard months, dying at age 71.

Cash had a dream and enough talent and desire to see it through, for better and worse. Interestingly, late in his life he suggested he also benefited from good timing. If he tried to make it in today’s music industry, he mused, “I think the only job I’d be able to get would be singing in a coffeehouse somewhere.”

Shiflett posts his original music and writing at www.daveshiflett.com.

JOHNNY CASH

The Life

By Robert Hilburn

Little, Brown. 679 pp. $32

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