Memories of Cash? Priceless

Johnny Cash was more than a country music star. He was a social crusader, international ambassador, spiritual seeker and full-time entertainer.

Ten years after his death, he remains a force so compelling that the Laguna Playhouse is presenting not one but two events focused on the Man in Black.

Saturday's Cash-a-thon features a performance of "Ring of Fire," a musical that features almost 30 Cash hits, preceded by a visit from former Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn, author of the recent biography "Johnny Cash: The Life." Hilburn, who will discuss the book, sign copies and take questions, is no mere posthumous tale-teller.

"The first time I saw Johnny Cash was New Year's Eve in 1959 or 1960," he said. "He was doing the 'Town Hall Party' [TV show], so I went down to Compton to see him. I had already heard him on the radio — they played 'Folsom Prison Blues' — and I'll never forget it because the line 'I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die' was shocking.

"I went to a local record store, and when I found out he was on Sun Records, I immediately added Cash to my standing order of records to buy."

Hilburn was the only journalist present at Cash's historic 1968 Folsom Prison concert and enjoyed a long personal history with the singer.

"With a lot of artists who you interview again and again, you get to know them, but you don't really hang out with them." Hilburn said. "It's like being friends from a distance. But some you do get closer to over the years, and with John, I did.

"He was a meaningful artist, like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, someone who you just know people will continue listening to, and so I did interview him many times over the years, maybe 15 times between the Folsom Prison concert and the last one just a week before he died."

Cash, who rose from poverty in Depression-era Dyess, Ark., saw his popularity explode in the late 1960s — with his "At Folsom Prison" album, Cash was outselling the Beatles. The singer's unusual mixture of bare-bones, heavily rhythmic country, socially aware lyrics and rich baritone earned him wide acclaim: induction into both the Country Music and Rock and Roll halls of fame, multiple Grammy, Country Music Assn. and Academy of Country Music awards and dozens of hit songs.

The musical "Ring of Fire," which runs all month and features 10 actor-musicians singing such classics as "Cry, Cry, Cry," "A Boy Named Sue" and "I Walk the Line," seemed an appropriate choice to mark the 10th anniversary of the singer's death and kick off the Laguna Playhouse's new season, artistic director Ann Wareham said.

"There are whole generations of people who are discovering his music now," said Wareham, who saw the show previously at Cabrillo Music Theatre in Thousand Oaks. "You see multi-generational families coming to see it, where grandparents are bringing grandkids, or two and three generations in the theater together. It's really great."

Wareham was excited to book Hilburn, whom she considers "one of the great music critics of all time." In particular, she said, she looked forward to hearing stories about Cash from a writer who knew him for years.

Some of those stories, it turned out, were revelations to Hilburn too.

"Writing the book was very interesting because I really thought I already knew everything about him," the author said. "But as I got into the research, I found that I was really a hundred miles from knowing him. I didn't know how interesting he really was.

"He had much more ambition than almost all the other major country stars. He wanted to inspire, to uplift people, to give them hope. And he kept it up. He had so much persistence, determination and ambition.

"Johnny Cash proved that you can have a voice and purpose and a higher calling that goes above jukebox hits. He was an individual that didn't compromise his music — that was his message and his legacy."

—Features editor Michael Miller contributed to this story.

If You Go

What: Robert Hilburn book signing for "Johnny Cash: A Life"

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 1 and 6:30 p.m. Saturday

Cost: Free with purchase of ticket for 2 or 7:30 p.m. performance of "Ring of Fire"

Information: (949) 497-2787 or http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com

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