Robert Hilburn’s biography of Johnny Cash prints not the legend, but “the life.” His honest, unsparing account demystifies a musician about whom there is a considerable mythology. No one who reads Hilburn can again accept the simple redemption narratives of Cash’s own autobiography and the 2005 Hollywood biopic, Walk the Line. If you’re a fan of Cash, approach this book with care. Its most arresting details concern Cash’s reckless and insensitive treatment of family members. As one reviewer writes, “[Cash] comes off like a real asshole. If he weren’t Johnny Cash, I’d hate him.” Other scholars such as Michael Streissguth have already poked holes in the Johnny Cash legend, but none have demolished it with such exhaustive attention to facts as Hilburn. Unfortunately, Hilburn’s narrow “stick to the facts” approach offers little insight into connections between Cash’s life and his music or his place in American cultural history.
Cash starts off likable enough. He was born in 1933, the third son of Ray and Carrie Cash, and grew up in Dyess, Arkansas, a New Deal colony for struggling farmers. Hilburn reveals little new regarding the central event in Cash’s childhood: the accidental 1944 death of his older brother, Jack, who seemed destined to become a Baptist preacher, and for which Cash was unfairly blamed by his domineering father. In 1950, Cash joined the Air Force, where he became a radio operator. His ability to decipher enemy radio transmissions signaled early his musical genius. Before departing for an Air Force base in Germany, Cash met Vivian Liberto, an Italian Catholic who became his first wife. Hilburn portrays young Cash as a shy country boy committed to Vivian and distinguished only by his strong desire to become a singer on the radio. Cash realized this ambition after a fortuitous 1954 move to Memphis. There, he impressed Sun Studios owner Sam Philips, the rock-and-roll pioneer who had recently discovered Elvis.
After Cash and his band, the Tennessee Two, became famous musicians, the country-boy-made-good narrative quickly recedes. Cash became addicted to amphetamines, which he originally took to deal with the rigors of touring, and started behaving erratically. Many of Cash’s missteps are well known: for example, his long-running affair with June Carter and his well-publicized 1964 arrest in El Paso for importing amphetamines from Mexico. (Interestingly, Hilburn reveals that the latter incident prompted a denunciation from a white supremacist group in Alabama that mistook Vivian as African American: “Money from the sale of [Cash’s] records goes to scum like Johnny Cash to keep them supplied with drugs and negro [sic] women.”) In contrast to popular accounts that attribute Cash’s bad behavior solely to drug addiction and suggest that it ended once he kicked the habit in the late 1960s, Hilburn shows that Cash’s destructiveness was more extensive and that he never fully controlled his drug addiction.
Cash was a terrible husband to Vivian. In 1960, Cash’s best friend, country musician Johnny Horton died. Cash wasted little time proposing to Horton’s wife, Billie Jean, who wisely declined because of Cash’s drug addiction and disregard for his family. Instead of demanding divorce from Vivian, Cash curtailed his time at home and carried on an open affair with June Carter. Vivian successfully sued Johnny in 1966 for divorce on the grounds of “extreme mental cruelty.”
Perhaps Cash’s most appalling misdeed was the forest fire he set in Los Padres National Park while high and drunk. It decimated much of the area. Literally surrounded by a “burning ring of fire,” a helicopter rescued him. Later he blamed his companion, nephew Damon Fielder, for the fire, though in fact, Fielder helped save Cash’s life. Cash’s fire killed 49 of the 53 California condors in the region. “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards,” Cash declared to a judge. Cash was fortunate to live in an age where journalists and fans were more forgiving about celebrities’ faults. He was also lucky to survive his out-of-control behavior. The forest fire was only one of several incidents in which he nearly killed himself.
“ … when Cash seems most personally satisfied, drug-free, and devoted to his family—the 1970s—he produced the least interesting music of his career. … it’s hard not to sympathize with the insensitive record executive who wished Cash would ‘stop going to church and go back to prisons.’”
While the Hollywood narrative suggested that Cash went clean after marrying June Carter in 1968, the reality was different. The movie about their relationship picked the wrong Cash song for the title: “Walk the Line,” a 1956 song that Cash actually wrote for Vivian about remaining true to her despite the temptations presented by female fans. The right choice would have been “Ring of Fire,” a 1963 song that June wrote with Merle Kilgore about her affair with Cash (the successful recording of which helped Cash save his career when his label, Columbia, considered dropping him because of his erratic conduct). Johnny and June’s relationship was full of love, passion, and creative collaboration. But it was tempestuous. There was the time June threatened to leave their tour so while she was in the shower, Johnny stole her suitcase and clothes and took them to his hotel room to prevent her from going. Once married in 1968, Cash did not walk the line with June. In fact, Hilburn suggests that he probably had an affair with her sister, Anita, when June was five months’ pregnant. Throughout their relationship, June neglected her own needs to serve Johnny’s. Her doctor told her, “Your biggest problem is being the wife of Johnny Cash. You’ll have to do something about that before we can do anything for you.”
Hilburn is heavy on facts, but light on interpretation. He doesn’t explain how a shy family man went off the rails so quickly or why Cash, who showed tremendous public empathy, could be so harmful to himself and others. At moments the text begs for analysis, but Hilburn refuses to answer even the questions he poses: “Marshall Grant wondered ‘How could someone inspire millions yet inflict such pain on himself and those closest to them?’ But there wasn’t time to dwell on those questions.” Elsewhere, we learn that during his affair with June, Cash would come home to Vivian only to flee the house, jump in his car, and drive around for hours high on pills. Hilburn observes, “The USO Far East tour came at an ideal team for Cash because it gave him a chance to get away from his problems at home.”
In asking mute facts to speak for themselves, Hilburn misses the chance to illuminate why we care about Cash’s life in the first place: his music and his place in American cultural history. There are few musical revelations of the kind provided by Streissguth who discovered, for example, that producers of Cash’s At Folsom Prison spliced in a prisoner’s joyous yelp following the iconic line, “I shot a man in Reno/Just to Watch Him Die.” (However, they removed the violent line altogether when Robert Kennedy was assassinated shortly following the single’s release.) Hilburn also makes little contribution to the burgeoning field of scholarship exploring the social and political significance of Cash’s career including recent works by Leigh Edwards, Jonathan Silverman, and Michael Foley.
Though Hilburn devotes a great deal of attention to Cash’s personal life, he does not satisfactorily analyze how it mattered to his music. Cash’s relationships with the women in his life lends a sinister meaning to his status as a symbol of masculine rebellion. Take, for example, the 1964 song, “Understand Your Man,” which Hilburn tells us was a “thinly veiled message to Vivian:”
You say the same old things that you been saying all along,
lay there in your bed, keep your mouth shut till I’m gone.
Don’t give me that old familiar cryin’ cussin’ moan.
Understand your man.
Cash asked his wife to “understand” him when he was doing everything possible to destroy their marriage. If that made him a rebel, then the sexual politics of Cash and the “outlaw country” movement he helped spark require a second look.
On the other hand, when Cash seemed most personally satisfied, drug-free, and devoted to his family—the 1970s—he produced the least interesting music of his career. During this period, Cash devoted much of his energy to promoting Evangelical Christianity, prominently supported Billy Graham’s crusades, and even made a movie about the life of Jesus filmed in Israel, Gospel Road. Cash’s spiritual reawakening made him a better man and his part in the Evangelical revival of the period deserves the attention of cultural historians. Still, it’s hard not to sympathize with the insensitive record executive who wished Cash would “stop going to church and go back to prisons.”
Sacrificing depth for breadth, Hilburn discusses virtually every song Cash recorded. Exposure to all of Cash’s oeuvre underlines how forgettable much of it was. At times, Cash sought commercial rather than artistic success as with his 1958 hit, “Ballad of a Teenage Queen.” He sometimes pursued personal whimsy, as with his gospel music of the 1970s. Cash is often seen as the country music equivalent to Bob Dylan, a near contemporary with whom he shared mutual respect. Unlike Cash, though, Dylan wrote the bulk of his own material. Dylan’s musical turns were always interesting and usually produced excellent music. There were only three periods when Cash was at his creative best: his early career at Sun Studios, the late 1960s when he recorded his best-known live records in two notorious California prisons, At Folsom and At San Quentin and even had a weekly CBS television show, and the several years before his death in 2003, when Cash released solo records with indie producer Rick Rubin. Hilburn makes much of the last phase, which makes for a nice bookend to his narrative. In my view that work doesn’t rival Cash’s Sun Studios records, which deserve their place alongside those of Presley, Perkins, Lewis, and Orbison. Nor do they match the energy and social significance of his prison records, which captured Cash at his empathetic best, articulating inmates’ perspectives while California governor Ronald Reagan and others preached the “law and order” politics that helped define the politics of our own time.
When Cash was at his best, backed by the minimalist sound of the Tennessee Two, his charisma and expressiveness matched that of any country or rock musician of his generation. The appeal of Cash’s music was rooted in its authenticity, which came from his grounding in American country and folk music tradition. Authenticity came as well from the clearly self-trained nature of his iconic baritone and his band’s distinctive sound, which Hilburn tells us emerged from their inability to play in any other style. And, as Marshall Grant recalled about Cash’s lyrics, “Everybody sang about love; not everyone sang about shooting a man ‘just to watch him die.’” Cash was a genius at writing songs that sounded modern yet felt like songs that had been sung for generations, the names of their creators long lost to time.
Though Hilburn refrains to speculate, Cash’s musical authenticity may also have resulted from the life he led. Cash was genuinely contrite about mistakes he made, and his life’s stormy events, much of them self-inflicted, brought out his incredible gift of empathy. That helped make him an amazing live performer able to connect with audiences all over the world. Authenticity, we know, is always at least partly a lie, a function of performance. But for an artist known for singing “from the guts of his soul,” Cash’s music must have emerged at least partly from the life he led. That part of the Cash legend still rings true.