There are few figures in the whole of pop music that as conveniently summarize American Identity — how we grapple with virtue and vice, how we labor to be both devoted and free — as Johnny Cash. Biographer Robert Hilburn is deeply aware of his subject’s heavy symbolism: how his shortcomings became assets, how his struggles defined him.
Hilburn worked as a critic and a music editor at the Los Angeles Times from 1966 to 2005, and in 1968, while on a freelance assignment for the paper, he attended Cash’s famed Folsom Prison concert. (Remarkably, Hilburn was the only music journalist in the room.) That familiarity — coupled with decades of keen observation and extensive interviews with Cash, his family and his colleagues — allows for a remarkable vantage from which to recount a life. Hilburn’s book is a comprehensive and thoughtful biography, cognizant always of how hard it is for heroes to make it in America.
Still, why write a Cash biography now, after two autobiographies, an Oscar-winning feature film and dozens of published accounts by players both primary and unknown?
In his nearly 50-year career, Johnny Cash penned more than 1,000 songs and released dozens of albums, but he was most often heralded for his rebelliousness, a characteristic that somehow eclipsed both his Gospel leanings and often sentimental songwriting. While Hilburn doesn’t aspire to recast the Cash mythology — that mythology, after all, is as true and as essential to Cash’s story as anything else — he does take considerable care to point out his subject’s longstanding penchant for narrative embellishment.
Johnny Cash, in the grand spirit of his Opry predecessors, was quick with a yarn; mostly, the fudging was decorative, but occasionally more mendacious claims were broadcast and recorded, particularly regarding the depth and constancy of his nearly lifelong prescription-drug use.
Hilburn gives equal consideration to both the Cash we were handed (the strutting outlaw, the brooding man in black) and the Cash who chose to name his firstborn daughter after his pet names for his wife’s breasts (“Rose” and “Anne”), the Cash who replaced the whipped cream on a slice of truck-stop pie with shaving cream, reducing a young Elvis to giggles, and the Cash who liked to sit around eating hot dogs and reading history books.
“Johnny Cash: The Life” succeeds at both expanding and complicating its subject. Hilburn does an artful, enviable job of reconciling all the facets — the man Cash wanted to be (a pious, steadfast, fearless figure) and who he more often was (a loving prankster with a weakness for women and pills).
The former characterization is so entrenched and so appealing, it’s easy to see why Cash and his many chroniclers were seduced by it; Cash, for his part, did everything he could to perpetuate it, even if that meant extended silences or denials (as Marshall Grant, the bassist in the Tennessee Two, Cash’s original backing band, told Hilburn, Cash “had a way of just slamming the door on unpleasant topics”).
But Hilburn writes with a remarkably steady hand, and Cash’s weaknesses are neither ignored nor romanticized. Addressing the composition of “Folsom Prison Blues,” which was adapted from a song by Gordon Jenkins, Hilburn writes: “He wanted to write not just about someone who was lonely for his girl, but someone so empty inside that he felt cut off from both his family and his faith.” Cash had a complicated relationship with the people and institutions he loved. Even his marriage to June Carter, so often celebrated as a redemptive, passionate affair, is revealed here as tumultuous — marred by infidelity (on his part) and addiction.
Hilburn understands that, however unlikely it sounds, devotion and betrayal can authentically co-exist — and often do.
For Cash, the tension between his hedonistic urges (in his 1975 autobiography, he called himself “awfully carnal”) and his religious devotion fueled most of his career. He often looked to songwriting as both confession and penance.
Still, that fundamental contradiction — the old Saturday night/Sunday morning axis — was also his undoing, at least commercially. By the late 1970s, it had become nearly impossible for audiences to accept that the prison-performing iconoclast — the guy with the scowl and the extended middle finger — was also into palling around with Richard Nixon and Billy Graham, riding for God and not the Devil.
By the late 1980s, Cash’s career seemed to be slowing down. Then, in 1993, he met producer Rick Rubin (who was still best known for his collaborations with metal and rap artists) and began work on “American Recordings,” the collection that would alter his professional arc in then-unforeseeable ways.
Here, Hilburn’s book takes on new energy, recounting Cash’s sudden resurgence in popularity among young rock fans (Cash joked about wanting to say “Hello, grandchildren” at his late-career shows) and his repositioning as a maverick figure. Hilburn understands how complicated and exhausting those years were for Cash (most of his old fans and the Nashville establishment were appalled by Rubin), and treats his late-career material with as much reverence as he does the creation of early hits like “I Walk the Line.”
Ultimately, “Johnny Cash: The Life” is measured and mindful, allowing of all the paradoxical bits that constitute a human life. Hilburn writes in clear-headed, informative prose about the myriad ways his subject struggled against his own wild impulses — both the times in which he was destroyed by them and the times in which they saved him.
Petrusich is the author of “It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music” and “Do Not Sell at Any Price,” a forthcoming book about collectors of rare 78rpm records.
Little, Brown and Company: 688 pp., $32