The Man in Black in Shades of Gray
Purchase Book
Johnny Cash: The Life
author: Robert Hilburn
publisher: Little, Brown
pub date: 10.29.2013
pp: 680
tags: Music , Biography & Autobiography

Stephen Deusner on Johnny Cash: The Life

The Man in Black in Shades of Gray

December 23rd, 2013 reset - +

JUST SIX MONTHS after Johnny Cash released At Folsom Prison in May 1968, he followed it up with The Holy Land. Documenting an early-morning concert in January 1968, the former has a well-earned reputation as one of the greatest live albums ever recorded: a collection of intense and raucously performed songs examining sin and temptation, freedom and confinement, hope and despair — all enlivened by an audience who knew each of those experiences personally. Cracking jokes and roaring through his songs, Cash wanted to show the inmates that he’s at least trying to see the world through their eyes.

Folsom rescued Cash, who had struggled creatively and commercially through most of the 1960s. Notorious for his amphetamine habit and his romantic distress, he had coasted for years on early hits like “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line,” but had been unable to replicate their lyrical directness or their chart success. But Folsom spent nearly two years on the country charts, transforming him from a troubled troubadour into something like a national icon. Cash emerged rejuvenated and refocused, as though finally aware that he had always been one pill or one missed show away from joining the inmates.

By stark contrast, The Holy Land chronicled Cash’s trip to the Middle East, where he recorded his thoughts and musings on the life of Christ and later interspersed them with spiritual tunes both new and old. With its air of exaggerated reverence and its gimmicky lenticular cover, the album is a curio in his immense catalog: part amateur theological survey, part celebrity travelogue, with only “Daddy Sang Bass” appearing on later hits compilations and career retrospectives. In 1968, it marked a complete about-face, and 45 years later the two works could not be more disparate. One is considered a classic: a monumental achievement that obliterates the distinctions between rock and country. The other is a kitschy artifact disdained or ignored by even Cash’s hardcore fans.

In his epic new biography, Johnny Cash: The Life, former Los Angeles Times music editor Robert Hilburn explores both sides of his subject and how they were in constant conflict with one another. “When Cash sat down for his annual New Year’s Eve reflections, he was too close to the situation to appreciate fully that he had just finished one of the most remarkable years in pop history,” Hilburn writes. “Country music is filled with tales of Saturday night sin and Sunday morning salvation, but no country artist had ever addressed the subject so forcefully in back-to-back packages.”

Both Folsom and The Holy Land were passion projects for Cash, and both show the extremes of his persona. Here was a man who could ingest handfuls of pills and bed women who were not his wife (June Carter only one among several), yet could still sing a gospel song with utmost conviction. He yearned for salvation out of both personal spiritual need and his perceived social responsibility as a country musician, yet he continued for decades to wallow in sin. There was significance to his struggle, which allowed fans to identify personally with him as a flawed human being and prevented him from preaching down to his audience. Even as he fought mightily and often futilely against temptation, he came to represent larger American ideals, most characteristically musical authenticity, social empathy, and spiritual striving. These seemingly oppositional urges toward damnation and salvation continue to animate the Cash legend even a decade after his death, bisecting him neatly into two figures. The man himself was a deeply fallible human being, while the Man in Black has grown into an American tall tale similar to Paul Bunyan or John Henry.

Anyone attempting to discuss Cash in any context — whether it’s a critical examination of his catalog or a summation of his life — must address these two roles and their inherent contradictions. Hilburn is less interested in the mythology than in the man who constructed it, and Johnny Cash is all the more fascinating, refreshing, and revelatory for that approach. The arc of Cash’s life is so long and varied, opening in rural Arkansas before traversing the globe many times and ranging from upstart musician on Sun Records to aging icon on American Recordings. It’s a rich story full of triumphs and failures, fadeouts and comebacks, yet it can be intimidating in both its length and its familiarity. Somehow Hilburn manages to fit the story into 700 pages without sacrificing detail, nuance, or character. Even more impressive is his ability to make these events new and revealing even after so many books and films and documentaries about the subject. Cash may be one of the most studied figures in American music, but Johnny Cash still finds new material and new approaches.

Most of Cash’s life is well known: he wrote two memoirs himself, one of which (1973’s Man in Black) is still considered a benchmark, and nearly everyone in his camp — his first wife Vivian Liberto Cash, his second wife June Carter Cash, several of his children, his bass player Marshall Grant — has published an account of life with Cash. Hilburn aspires to be definitive, as the definite article in the subtitle suggests, and he has written what may be the best and most probing book on the man. Johnny Cash is a thorough account of its subject’s many sins and eventual redemption, which means the book is often harrowing. It will certainly alter your image of Cash, who emerges first as an insecure boy, transforms into an overeager young man, then curdles into an entitled junkie before settling into his role as a musical icon.

Hilburn’s Cash is a fascinating character, alternately sympathetic and loathsome, his impulsiveness stemming from both the privileges of touring life as well as its void of accountability and security. Tracing a clean throughline from each low or high point to the next, Hilburn does not flinch from portraying his subject in a deeply unflattering light. One scene stands out for revealing Cash’s easy cruelty: when he played a big show at the Hollywood Bowl, his first wife, Vivian, brought their young daughters to see their father in action. Afterwards, he snubbed her in the parking lot and jumped in a car with his mistress, June. Accounts of the incident vary, but the result is the same in each telling: “Vivian was humiliated and [Cash’s] parents were furious.”

In the early chapters of Johnny Cash, June is no saint herself. Billie Jean Horton, wife of the country singer Johnny Horton and one of Cash’s many lovers, calls June a “hustler,” and Hilburn even compares her presence on tour to that of Yoko among the Beatles. Yet, he’s also careful to point out that she and Cash both were conflicted morally and socially about their affair and the torment it caused their family, friends, and colleagues. Eventually, Vivian managed to exert a steadying influence on her husband, but only after his multiple relapses, affairs, failed comebacks, and medical scares. Ultimately, it’s not his wife who inspired Cash to reform himself, but his son, John Carter Cash, who often bore the brunt of his father’s binges. As a young teenager, the boy regularly shared a hotel room with his father on tour, which Hilburn depicts as a particularly terrifying situation. One night Cash OD’ed on pills, and it took June and John both to drag him to the shower and revive him.

It’s a wonder Cash survived the 1960s. Or the ‘70s. Or the ‘80s.

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Folsom may have revitalized Cash commercially, but it was not quite a new beginning for the artist. Rather, with its feisty renditions of old material, it closed out the first of several long, uncertain phases in his career. Less popular and certainly less well regarded, The Holy Land may mark a true turning point. At the very least it proved equally pivotal, as it set in place the concerns that would guide Cash throughout much of the 1970s — a decade defined by his relentless spiritual questing and a renewed emphasis on gospel music. Cash insisted on playing hymns when he auditioned for Sun Records, until Sam Phillips persuaded him to try his hand with secular material. Years later, Cash would maintain that one of his earliest Sun hits, “I Walk the Line,” was less about his new wife than about his God (yet Hilburn strikes a note of subtle skepticism).

Nevertheless, some of Cash’s best singles worked as both secular and spiritual ponderings. Hilburn rightly suggests that his three signature tunes in 1969 and 1970, when Cash was reaching millions via his variety show on ABC, smuggled Christian ideas onto the radio via pop hits. In fact, “What Is Truth?” and especially “The Man in Black” can be read as extensions of his quest for salvation, viewing such topical concerns as the Vietnam War and prisoners’ rights through the lens of Christian faith. Cash was, as Hilburn notes, “a man struggling to understand the times,” and few other artists were quite so well positioned to speak across the various political and social divides that defined America at this point in history. Here was a man who could release a counterculturally sympathetic inquisition like “What Is Truth?” with its verse devoted to questioning the war, and follow it up with a performance at Nixon’s White House.

It was, of course, impossible for Cash to walk such a fine line in American culture for very long, and eventually his endorsement of Nixon, his appearances with evangelist Billy Graham, and his emphasis on hymns over hits alienated his younger fans. Meanwhile, well outside the city limits, a new generation of musicians including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Jerry Jeff Walker rode the wave of outlaw country that displaced Cash on the charts, relegating him to Nashville’s old guard: unhip, out of touch, irrelevant. Hilburn notes the irony that Cash had been rendered obsolete by the very movement he inspired.

Musically, Cash was lost for most of the 1970s and 1980s. His gospel projects were often ambitious follies, such as his Jesus biopic and its soundtrack, The Gospel Road. The film never got distribution; the double-album didn’t crack the pop or the country charts. Somehow, his pop albums were even worse — obligatory and uninspired. Cash notched decent hits with “One Piece at a Time” in 1976 and “Ghost Riders in the Sky” three years later, but they were flukes rather than comebacks, and the albums they anchored flopped. It’s hard to imagine any artist in any genre sinking lower than “Chicken in Black,” a convoluted novelty hit from the early 1980s that featured Cash singing about trading brains with a chicken. Cash disowned it and demanded Columbia pull all copies. 

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Especially now that the Man in Black mythology is so entrenched in popular culture, it has proved far too easy to dismiss this period in his life and to skip ahead to his rediscovery in 1994, when the Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings made Cash a roots-rock godhead. Rather than rush through these lost years, Hilburn catalogs Cash’s health scares, relapses, and professional indignities. Even his more carefully crafted records, such as 1983’s Johnny 99, tanked unceremoniously, and his one success — a supergroup featuring Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson — was disregarded by many as a nostalgia act. Meanwhile, he continued popping pills, acting the young rock star even into his fifties.

Hilburn risks tedium recounting Cash’s long struggles in the 1960s and 1980s, yet he ably conveys Cash’s deepening desperation and humiliation, explaining his behavior, but never excusing it. Ultimately, all of these ups and downs make for a compelling story arc, as though Cash had to get low before he could emerge again, first on U2’s “The Wanderer” and then, much more powerfully, with American Recordings. Rubin, a producer better known for helming albums by the Beastie Boys, Slayer, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, wanted to work with an older artist and approached a skeptical Cash about working together. His best decision was to pare Cash’s sound down to its basics: acoustic guitar and that booming voice. It’s impossible to understate the effect American Recordings had on Cash’s career and his place in American culture. It was his best-selling record in 30 years; the video for “Delia’s Gone” was played on MTV of all channels; and, perhaps most crucially, it re-energized Cash as a recording artist. Would American Recordings have had the same revelatory heft had Cash not spent so long in the wilderness?

Thanks to this late-career revitalization, the last hundred pages of Johnny Cash make for an intensely emotional read, as Cash comes closest to achieving the true redemption he spent his life chasing. Writing against the Man in Black legend, Hilburn ably fills in the details of Cash’s life to portray him as a troubled yet determined man who caused great pain for those around him yet produced great music. Rather than wilting under such scrutiny, the songs take on new gravity and emotional heft, such that Johnny Cash is best read with his record within reach, the classics and the failures alike. He may emerge on the last pages as less of a mythic hero, but this generous and carefully written biography recovers Cash’s humanity.

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A Tennessee native, Stephen M. Deusner is a freelance writer currently based in Indiana.

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