Classic Rock Review

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Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn (2013)

9780316194754_custom-d61d20fe8fe383002eab0887dc0c0c3b42773dcf-s6-c30From amazon.com

“He is what the land and the country are all about, the heart and soul of it personified…”. Bob Dylan.

“It’s called country music and western music, but the truth is it’s American music. It speaks in story about America in a way that speaks to all of us, north, east, west, and south.” Richard Nixon at a White House concert.

With the holiday gift giving season fast approaching, there’s no surfeit of books on musical artists. Books on Charlie Parker, The Beatles, Duke Ellington, Robert Plant, Jimi Hendrix, and no doubt others will be on the bookshelves. But certainly one of the best is Robert Hilburn’s book on Johnny Cash.

Hilburn began this book in 2009 when Cash’s manager told him “only about twenty percent” of Cash’s life had been told. While previous books on Cash put his life and music in some kind of perspective, Hilburn takes a slightly different approach. He reveals not just Cash’s life in and out of music, but why Cash matters. This book is a penetrating look at the man behind the “Man in Black” myth. And Hilburn never lets the myth get in the way of the facts. He has known, interviewed, and simply talked with Cash during his long (50 years) music career. Using interviews from both the past and present Hilburn has gone deeper into Cash’s life, and has shone a light on both the real Johnny Cash and his music.

The book is broken into five parts, each dealing chronologically with a specific period and events from that period of Cash’s life. Events like Memphis and Sam Phillips, Columbia Records, the tune “Big River” and pills, June Carter, drugs and Carnegie Hall, Folsom Prison and marrying June, losing the muse, Rick Rubin, and the final days are just a few of the many headings of events in the five parts chronicled in this book. There’s 16 pages of b&w photographs from throughout Cash’s life, including an early photo of Cash in his Air Force uniform playing a fiddle. And another photo from 1980, of Cash and his wife facing away from the camera–her arm around Cash’s waste–his hand squeezing her buttock. Also included are 5 pages of a “Guide To Recordings And DVDs”, 16 pages of Source Notes, and an Index.

The book begins early in Cash’s life in Dyess, Arkansas and his rural 1930’s upbringing. From there Hilburn, in a no nonsense, straightforward writing style, constructs Cash’s life not only as a musician, but as a man with human failings, wracked with guilt. But also here is Cash “the practical joker”, the man who wanted to buy his parents “…a nice place so they could have modern utilities…”, the man with pressures in his personal life (which in one instance led to Cash’s love song “I Walk The Line”), and the man who abused narcotics (and the price he paid for that). But Hilburn also notes Cash’s other “addictions”–reading scripture everyday, his devotion to music, and a man who cared about his fans (Cash, learning of fans who had traveled far to see his concerts, would pay their room and board). As Marshall Grant said of Cash–“He’d give you the shirt off his back, and if he was straight, everything else he had in his possession.”

Hilburn also notes Cash’s guilt at not being a better father and husband. Roseanne Cash was very helpful, giving Hilburn a better look at her father–even to the detriment of Cash and the family. Cash was in a never ending circle of “wicked behavior” and then deep repentance. Cash wanted to redeem himself so others might feel they too could be redeemed. But there was also the father who named his daughter after pet names for his wife’s breasts–“Rose” and “Anne”. The author also weaves the Carter family into the picture and the their effect on Cash both musically and personally. He also reveals that June Carter had failings of her own to deal with.

In tandem with a detailed look at Cash the man, Hilburn has also delved extensively into the music side of Cash–using the same straightforward clear prose. For me the book is at its best when Hilburn goes into detail about the business side of Cash’s life. He essentially begins with Cash going to Memphis and hooking up with Sun Records, and continues with his early recordings and hits, leaving Sun and signing with Columbia Records, Cash admitting that some of his albums weren’t very good, recording gospel albums which took the pressure off Cash to write more secular songs (and hopefully hits), the many concerts he gave (including of course the Folsom Prison concert which Hilburn attended), being dropped by Columbia and not doing well on the Mercury label, worrying that his music would be forgotten, the fact that the 70’s and 80’s were not a good time for Cash, that Cash wrote approximately 1,000 songs, and his meeting Rick Rubin at a time when Cash felt his career over.

The book begins to wind down with Cash returning home because of his worsening Parkinson’s Disease, and the passing of June Carter–as Rick Rubin said at the time–“I didn’t know if he was going to make it past this.” But not before Cash recorded a large cache of songs with Rubin as producer/facilitator, including “The Man Comes Around”, and “Hurt”. Hilburn gives the reader enough details that help put Cash’s music in a much clearer light–from both Cash’s and his fans perspectives. Nothing seems romanticized–everything rings sure and true, interesting, and informative. Having such attention to detail brings both parts of Cash’s life into a sharper focus than in previous books.

While some previous books have done a good/adequate job with Cash’s life story, none have really put everything in such clear terms–his life outside of music, and the music itself. Its Hilburn’s leaving aside the myth, his attention to detail and his unflinching way of laying everything out–good and bad–that makes this book the one to read if you’re interested in a look beyond the “Man in Black.”

“His most enduring legacy is that his message continues to spread.” John Cash, son of Johnny Cash.

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December 28, 2013 - Posted by | Book Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn | ,

1 Comment »

  1. Reblogged this on Bookbilly.

    Comment by amber | December 28, 2013 | Reply


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