Johnny Cash: The Life, by Robert Hilburn (Little, Brown and Company, 688 pp., $32)
Johnny Cash is the Abraham of country music, the patriarch of a sprawling artistic family tree with deep roots in the indigenous American terra firma and branches casting shadows into nearly every corner of modern popular entertainment. As the common ancestor of a diverse set of performers ranging from Bob Dylan to the Beastie Boys, Cash occupies a unique place in the American cultural canon. He is the Man in Black, an outlaw on the fringes of society, carrying himself in an elegantly spare style and boasting a voice like a mighty oak. His dark tales of sin and redemption, delivered with his trademark masculine dignity, sound as fresh and affecting a decade after his death as they did when they were recorded, in some cases over a half-century ago. Such a totemic figure deserves nothing less than a first-rate biography by a serious journalist, and that’s just what Robert Hilburn, the longtime chief music critic of the Los Angeles Times, has given him.
Drawing extensively on Cash’s memoirs—he wrote two, 1975’s Man in Black and 1997’s Cash: The Autobiography—as well as interviews with family members, intimates, and the musician himself, Hilburn has constructed a book that is at once entertaining and encyclopedic. The epic and occasionally exhausting journey begins where it should in the Depression-era cotton fields of Cash’s hometown, Dyess, Arkansas, and ends as it must at his deathbed in Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. Stops along the way include Sun Studios in Memphis, where Cash made his first recordings with legendary hit-maker Sam Philips; Folsom and San Quentin Prisons in California, where Cash made reputation-defining live albums in the 1960s; Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry, where ABC’s The Johnny Cash Show was taped at the apex of his popularity in 1969 and 1970; and, finally, producer Rick Rubin’s Los Angeles living room, where the last, intimate, and controversial chapter of Cash’s musical life would unfold.
What emerges is a portrait of a man as hungry for wealth and fame as he was desperate for redemption and salvation. In the lyrics of a song inspired by Cash, his friend and frequent collaborator Kris Kristofferson calls him “a walking contradiction, partly truth partly fiction,” a description confirmed by Hilburn and his numerous primary sources. Cash was both family man and philanderer; staunch patriot and fierce critic of his country; top-selling recording artist and desperate loner. It was a compelling alchemy that drew audiences by the thousands to his electrifying live concerts and made him for a time one of the biggest stars in the world.
While he achieved fame with his outlaw image, Cash was a devout Christian who appeared alongside Billy Graham at the evangelist’s legendary “crusades” and recorded at least as many gospel anthems as he did cowboy songs. But he was also a junkie, pure and simple, and despite an unshakeable faith in God his lifelong addiction to amphetamines nearly killed him more than once. Stashing pills in toilets and guitar cases, flipping cars, falling into lakes, disappearing for days on end, deceiving and abusing his loved ones, and relapsing repeatedly even when the consequences were as obvious as they were dire, Cash exhausted those who cared for him. In a hotel room after a concert in England in 1983, Hilburn reports, a “wasted” Cash began hallucinating about a Murphy bed that he imagined was stored in one of the walls. Despite assurances that it was just a normal wall, Cash attacked, “ripping at the paneling with such force that the wood began to splinter. One of the pieces got lodged in his right hand, causing it to bleed and become infected, swelling to almost twice its normal size. When reporters noticed it, Cash told them he had been bitten by a poisonous spider.” Thanks to a lifetime of similar chemical shenanigans, Cash spent his last decade in constant and extreme pain.
Hilburn’s account is strongest in the later chapters. He reports Cash’s final days in arresting detail. The author appears to have had unprecedented access to the singer’s inner circle, including family members such as son John Carter Cash and intimates such as former band member and onetime son-in-law Marty Stuart. If Hilburn stumbles at all, it is in his well-intentioned effort to chronicle every Cash recording session, no matter how historically insignificant or musically unproductive. We simply don’t need two full pages on Cash’s disastrous version of Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler.” These detours take us away from the gripping cycle of sin and redemption that dominated Cash’s life. Trimming them would have cut easily 75 pages from this nearly 700-page book and made Hilburn’s Cash biography more like a Cash song—lean, mean, and fast-moving.
But everything that should be here is here: the endearing four-year courtship-by-letter between Cash the Air Force signalman and his first wife, Vivian; the 500-acre Los Padres National Forest fire set by Cash while stoned; the bust for attempting to smuggle more than a thousand pills across the Mexican border in 1965; the “pet” ostrich that attacked Cash while he went for a walk on his own property, opening a gash in his stomach; Cash’s subsequent attempt to get high in his hospital bed by shoving Valium under his bandages and into the wound. It is at times a very wild ride.
The Nashville producer and Cash confidant “Cowboy” Jack Clement once remarked, “There’s two kinds of people on Earth: those that love Johnny Cash, and those that will.” Both will enjoy this book.