‘Johnny Cash: The Life’ by Robert Hilburn

He was tall, rangy, low-voiced, poker-faced and dressed like a barroom gambler. Little wonder, then, that part of Johnny Cash’s appeal was that he looked flat-out dangerous. Indeed, he had a scary side, one fully detailed in Robert Hilburn’s definitive new biography. But this isn’t a seedy tell-all that’ll make you want to take a shower after you read it. Hilburn had the cooperation of Cash’s children as well as the Man in Black himself, who told the author that “he wanted people to know his entire story — especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments — because he believed in redemption and he wanted others to realize that they too could be redeemed.”

As one might guess, anybody that self-aware probably scared himself more than anyone else. The story begins with young J.R. (he didn’t become “Johnny” until he began making records) walking the roads of rural Dyess, Ark., at night, dreaming about a bigger world and singing songs like the ones that eventually got him there. In this he resembles artists like Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan, performers who have touched millions yet somehow always seemed to be lonely. Later he would spend weeks alone on an “obsessive quest for his next song,” Hilburn says, and he even wrote letters to himself, detailing accomplishments and setting goals. There’s a lesson here: If you want the world to listen, learn how to talk to yourself.

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And there was plenty to talk about. Cash’s older brother, Jack, was a golden boy, one who decided early to join the ministry and as a child was already counseling adults who drank too much or were coping with sorrow. When he was 14, Jack was injured horribly in an accident involving a table saw and died with the family around him, saying he heard angels singing and saw a beautiful golden city. As if Jack’s death wasn’t bad enough, Cash’s father took to drink and, some family members say, told J.R. that he wished J.R. had died instead of his brother.

Cash dragged that darkness with him through the rest of his life, to a stint in the Air Force that took him to Landsberg Air Base in Germany (where he teamed up with some other country boys to form a group called the Landsberg Barbarians) and then to Memphis, where his path crossed that of producer Sam Phillips of Sun Records, the genius who was as much behind the birth of rock-and-roll as Elvis or the other stars he recorded. Phillips’s faith in the country and rhythm-and-blues music he grew up with was unshakeable, Hilburn says. In pitting his tiny Sun label against companies that boasted pop stars such as Perry Como and Patti Page, Phillips “didn’t plan to compete with the pop sounds; he intended to replace them.”

One of Phillips’s best suggestions was to turn “I Walk the Line,” usually the top tune on everyone’s list of Cash’s best, from a slow ballad to the foot-tapper we know today. As usual, a number of takes were done in the studio, and Cash told Phillips he favored the slow version. To his surprise, when Cash turned on the radio while he was touring, he heard the faster variant; when he got back to Memphis, he confronted Phillips, who begged him to give it a chance. If it didn’t take off, he promised, he’d pull the record and put out the ballad arrangement instead. A few weeks later, “I Walk the Line” became Cash’s first No. 1 Billboard hit.

When Cash left Sun for Columbia Records, his career took off, and this is where the story turns Shakespearean. A week after signing with the new label, Cash complained of road fatigue to a fiddler he was touring with, and the other musician gave him his first amphetamine tablet. Within a few years, he was getting so wasted that he began to unravel during performances and sometimes couldn’t sing because of the drugs’ drying effect on his throat. Then he met June Carter of the fabled Carter family of traditional American music. She and Cash shared a volcanic passion, and she wrote one of the other songs he is best known for, “Ring of Fire.”

An old hand at music journalism, Hilburn was chief music critic and pop music editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1970 to 2005, and his writing is simple, ego-free and casually magisterial. There’s no bombast to it; he lets Cash and company supply all the pyrotechnics. Johnny and June had their ups and downs, and so did his career, with duds alongside such classics as “Folsom Prison Blues.” (Cash’s concert at the prison where the song was recorded is described in minute-by-minute detail in Michael Streissguth’s “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece.”) He finally kicked his pill habit, and, late in life, his career was revived by rap producer Rick Rubin, who is responsible for some of Cash’s best work, including “Hurt,” the haunting Trent Reznor song that introduced Cash to a new generation of listeners.

Of all the younger artists Cash encountered, none captured his contradictions better than U2’s Bono, who describes his music as both hard and caring, about “sinful behavior and devotion.” Bono remembers a dinner that Cash began with “the most beautiful, most poetic grace you’ve ever heard.” And then the man who sang country and rockabilly better than anyone before or since leaned over to the Irish pop star and said, “But I sure miss the drugs.”

David Kirby is the author of “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.”

JOHNNY CASH

The Life

By Robert Hilburn

Little, Brown. 679 pp. $32

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