Johnny Cash: A Life by Robert Hilburn- Little Brown- $32.00
Robert Hilburn’s new book from Little, Brown Pubs., “Johnny Cash: The Life,” is a welcome addition to the literature on Cash in that it is the most authoritative, comprehensive biography we have of the Everyman who became the larger-than-life Johnny Cash. He shows his subject in every light, warts and all, making no excuses for the selfishness of his drug addictions, his leaving his family, his recklessness in missing performances, letting down his promoters and band members, as well as his audiences, but then also sheds considerable light on the better angel of Cash’s personality in that even after all the alienation of those closest to him, so many people stayed in his corner, time and again, until Cash could finally overcome himself to be the artist he was meant to be.
He might have been considered the King of Country Music at one time in his career, but Hilburn makes a strong argument that Cash was more of a great storyteller and folk singer than anything else. Also, owing to his early Sun roots in Memphis with Sam Phillips, he could have been considered a rocker as well. He was indefinable. Because of his late association with Rick Rubin during the last months of his life, he was still evolving as an artist and winning a new generation of fans. In that, Hilburn thinks Cash resembled Bob Dylan more than anyone else.
Cash’s son, John Carter recently found a tape of songs Cash had collected back in 1984, not long after his release from the Betty Ford Clinic, which finds Cash’s voice in fine form, and the songs another example of what a great storyteller he was. That album has recently been released, adding to the Cash legend, proving him to be still undiminished by his death in the eyes of his fans.
There is much in Hilburn’s book that shows Cash’s journey into the light was a much longer and harder road than even the award-winning film about his life portrayed. It was a tribute to his honesty and integrity that he stayed true to himself through all the years. His video of “Hurt,” is now regarded as possibly the best music video ever made. It’s hard to imagine that many other artists his age would ever be held in such reverence. But then, what would we expect from a man who financed a film about Jesus Christ and wrote a novel about St. Paul. Owing to his familiarity with the genre, it isn’t difficult to think that Cash could have made a living out of being a gospel singer. He was unfailing in proclaiming his faith, often in the composition of a new song.
We will never see another like him. We’re lucky to have Hilburn’s fine biography to jog our memory and give Cash the appreciation he’s due.