“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
If you remember hearing that phrase in that iconic baritone voice, then Robert Hilburn’s comprehensive new biography “Johnny Cash: The Life” is one of fall’s not-to-be-missed books.
Hilburn was the editor and pop music critic for The Los Angeles Times from 1970-2005, and his meticulous research and flowing writing style elevates this biography from good to great.
The book takes the reader through Cash’s entire life, from his days as a child, living with his family in Dyess, Ark., picking cotton on their land and singing gospel songs his mother taught him.
When John’s brother Jack died tragically in a farming accident, it devastated the entire family. John admired and loved his older brother, and was destroyed when his father said aloud that it was John’s fault Jack died, even though there was no basis in fact for that.
Jack’s death colored the rest of John’s life; he never got over it. John loved music and, after a stint in Germany in the military, where he began to write songs and wrote to a young girl, Vivian Liberto, whom he met back home.
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John courted Vivian, and when he came home they married and ended up in Memphis. There he met two other men, and they played music together. When Sam Phillips opened Sun Studio in Memphis, they began to get serious about a career in music.
Hilburn interviewed many people for this book, and at the end, he lists chapter by chapter with whom he talked. Over the years, he had interviewed Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, so he had a personal knowledge of his subject, which adds a great deal to this book.
This is a big book at 688 pages, but Cash led a big life, and calling “Johnny Cash: The Life” is more than apt. From the successes and good times to the pervasive drug use and infidelities, not only with June but with other women, and dwindling sales and creative dry spells, this book covers an amazing American life.
There are so many fascinating stories, and many of them have been covered before in other books and the terrific movie 2005 “Walk the Line,” but there is a depth here that gives a much more complete picture of his life.
After the success of the late 1960s with the incredible “At Folsom Prison” album, Cash hosted a successful variety show on ABC. He clashed frequently with ABC executives about the format of the show; he wanted to feature interesting musical guests and themed shows revolving around gospel music and folk music, they wanted circus themes and popular country music stars.
The 1970s and '80s were less kind to Cash. He recorded dozens of albums, few of them successful artistically or commercially. He was dropped by Columbia Records and moved to Mercury, but his slide continued.
Cash was supporting a large entourage, and June spent money extravagantly, so he had to tour hundreds of days a year to make enough money to support everyone. It was exhausting, and the drug use continued, much to the dismay of people close to Cash.
At the end of Cash’s career, he met iconoclastic producer Rick Rubin, best known for his collaborations with hip-hop and metal artists. Rubin spoke extensively to Hilburn, so this part of the book is especially vivid.
Cash did four CDs with Rubin, and it revived him artistically. Although his health was deteriorating to the point where he couldn’t see or walk, his sessions with Rubin were a high point creatively. He won multiple Grammy Awards, and was even nominated for an MTV Video of the Year Award for his video “Hurt,” which is considered by many to be one of the finest videos ever made.
Hilburn brilliantly conveys the life of an American icon. From the Depression-era impoverished family life to musical superstardom to eventual decline to a phoenix-like rise at the end of his career, from a failed first marriage to finding lifelong love with June and becoming a good father, from drug use to failing health and losing his beloved wife, this is a book not only for Johnny Cash fans, but for everyone who likes a good biography.
If you weren’t a fan before reading this, you will be after, and you’ll be searching out Cash CDs as well. This is simply one of the best books of the year. I give it five stars.
You can read an excerpt from “Johnny Cash: The Life” on Hilburn’s website at roberthilburnonline.com.
Diane LaRue is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and blogs about books at http://bookchickdi.blogspot.com. You can follow her on Twitter @bookchickdi, and she can be emailed at email@example.com.