I have over a thousand Johnny Cash songs in my collection, even all his albums from the eighties, about which less said is better. It’s all carefully curated too; I’ve uploaded all of it to iTunes, categorized it, rated it, and listened to it in order—every single studio album, live album, collaboration album, and gospel album, all the way from Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar to the posthumous American VI: Ain’t No Grave. What I’m saying is: I’m a fan. With that said, Robert Hilburn’s Johnny Cash: The Life has forced me to return to the beginning and listen to all of it all over again, and I couldn’t be happier to do so.
Not that you’ll have to do that. When you pick up this biography—and you should—skip to the very end, where you’ll find an appendix entitled “Guide to Recordings and DVDs”, which cuts down Cash’s sizable discography to the barest essentials. Maybe it’s odd to start at the end of the book, but you can’t read a music biography without some of the music playing.
Johnny Cash’s life was a wild one, and wild lives give rise to wild stories. Jump over to Cracked, for instance, and you’ll see that they’ve conflated the time an ostrich gutted Cash with the time he hid painkillers next to an open surgery wound and nearly ODed. It’s hard to blame them, though. Cash was a rockstar, drug addict, hellraiser, born-again Christian, and American legend; it’s tough to keep each of his bacchanalian binges straight. Robert Hilbourn is the man to do so, though. He was the only music journalist present in Folsom Prison for Cash’s legendary 1968 concert, and he covered Cash from there until the end, completing his final interviews with Cash and June Carter months before their deaths.
Hilbourn’s other sources are a who’s who of rock royalty and Johnny Cash’s closest friends and family. Cash’s children, his extended family, his band mates from the Tennessee Three, his fellow musicians like Steve Earle and Kris Kristofferson, his old Air Force buddies, and his music business managers and producers, especially the legendary Rick Rubin, all contributed to the book, and they varnished nothing. If you’ve seen “Hurt”, you probably already know: Johnny Cash doesn’t take varnish.
I remember around a few weeks after Cash died, I was listening to some country station in Alberta and the jackass DJ was whining that Cash wasn’t “real country”. He’s far from the only corporate country hack to make that claim, though. In some ways, country music’s constant and baffling rejection of Cash, a theme Hilbourn’s book keeps returning to, characterizes the problems with the genre to this day.
In 1998, after both Cash’s first album with Rubin, American Recordings, and the second, Unchained, won Grammys, Rubin thanked the Nashville community and country radio in particular by issuing this famous advertisement featuring a picture of Cash at San Quentin flipping the bird. They’d done exactly nothing to support the reinvention of Johnny Cash, they weren’t playing his songs on country radio, and were happily indignant towards Rubin—which is especially obnoxious, given that Rubin saved Cash from a decade of performing at a failing auditorium in Branson, Missouri. Read Johnny Cash: The Life, and Nashville’s stubborn rejection of any kind of country that’s interesting and talented becomes a bit more clear—though it never really makes sense. Nashville’s obstinate posturing fuelled Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and the growth of outlaw country back in the 80s, and corporate country’s slavish devotion to brain-dead frat boys and their trucks is provoking the growth of Americana today.
Johnny Cash’s story isn’t exactly the one of simple stumbling and redemption portrayed in Walk the Line (though I liked that film). Cash struggled constantly, sometimes as the author of his own misfortune, relapsing time and again on his prescription drug abuse, compulsively womanizing, and hurting those closest to him, and other times a victim of things beyond his control, like the fickle music business, creative struggles, and a jaw that stayed broken for years. His story is fascinating because Cash didn’t merely endure—he weathered his hurts and became a fallible, very human legend. It is to Hilbourn’s credit that, even though we know how the story goes and how it ends, reading this book makes it seem like we’re hearing Cash’s story for the very first time.
Johnny Cash: The Life, is available from indigo.ca for $23.