The Man in Black in Living Color

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 5 2013 1:05 PM

The Man in Black in Living Color

The most insightful and entertaining Johnny Cash biography to date.

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He also wanted to be a better artist. “My primary focus is on [Cash’s] artistry,” Hilburn writes in the acknowledgments, and his book sometimes reads like an extended Cash discography, plowing dutifully through every album, as far as I can tell, that Cash ever released. This is sometimes dreary work: Cash’s output in the 1980s was regularly uninspired, his artistic focus having gotten distracted by near constant touring, film projects, and Billy Graham Crusades.

Robert Hilburn
Robert Hilburn.

Photo courtesy Christopher Morris/Little, Brown Co.

But some of the best moments come when Hilburn details how this or that song which is essential to Cash’s legacy came into being. Many fans already know that the melody and much of the lyric to Cash’s signature single, “Folsom Prison Blues,” was actually lifted, with few (albeit defining) edits, from a 1953 Gordon Jenkins recording, “Crescent City Blues.” Hilburn, though, has actually tracked down the man, Chuck Riley, who played that record for Cash while they were in the Air Force together. “Riley had just bought the album at the PX, and he remembers Cash asking him to play it again,” Hilburn writes. “A few days later, Cash came back and borrowed the record to write down the lyrics or perhaps copy it on his tape recorder.” Those details, combined with other bits and pieces of inspiration—the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, a line from Jimmie Rodgers’ “T for Texas,” and more—allow Hilburn to pin down the complex genesis of one of the last century’s most indelible recordings.

Insights like that come throughout Johnny Cash: The Life. So what’s missing? Surprisingly, given Hilburn’s stated focus on Cash’s art, it’s the book’s lack of attention to the music, as opposed to the lyrics. Hilburn always lets us know what Cash’s songs were about; he quotes the words to some of the most famous Cash numbers almost in their entirety. But he offers only the most generic descriptions (“playful” or “upbeat” or “aggressive musical backing”) of how Cash’s music actually sounds.

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The absence of any close listening here is doubly frustrating because anyone familiar with Hilburn’s work knows he can be an adept critic. In his Cornflakes with John Lennon (And Other Tales From a Rock n’ Roll Life), his 2009 memoir of 30-plus years as a music journalist, Hilburn had this to say about the sense and sound of Cash’s music:

John wasn’t a great singer technically, but he was a superb communicator whose conversational style captured life’s everyday search for comfort and salvation. Even in the most joyous tunes … his instrumental backing tended to be stark, as if reminding us of life’s accompanying hardships. The chicka-boom-chicka guitar approach was as steady and true as an amplified heartbeat.

That is spot-on beautiful, and I wish Hilburn’s biography included moments like it. It’s in the sounds of Cash’s greatest performances, after all, where the riddle of his continued appeal—all the discs, all those books—will be solved. The way his larger-than-life stories are grounded by life-size sonics, and delivered by that extraordinary ordinary voice. This is what drew people to Cash long before they knew much of anything about his personal life. It’s the Cash sound, and the meanings it yet creates, that made me want to read yet another book about him in the first place. And putting aside this one shortcoming, Johnny Cash: The Life made me glad I did.

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Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn. Little, Brown and Co.

David Cantwell is the author of Merle Haggard: The Running Kind and co-author of Heartaches by the Number.