“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
The signature greeting of one of country music’s most iconic performers was hardly needed to introduce him to his audience. The mileage on his face, the dark garb he wore on his body, and the underdog quality on his vinyl more readily identified Johnny Cash. Robert Hilburn’s Johnny Cash: The Life does little to disabuse the fans of their conflation of the public persona with the private person: the man in black was not sunshine off the stage. But if the new biography describes a man that fans intuitively know even before hitting page one, Hilburn gives readers cause to open the book by explaining why Cash was so dark, drugged, and dour. Johnny Cash makes sense of Johnny Cash.
The defining moment of Cash’s life occurred when he was 12. With a sense of foreboding, he pled in vain for his 14-year-old brother to join him fishing. Brother Jack Cash opted instead to go to the local school’s woodshop to earn extra money for the family. While making fence posts, the older boy’s stomach pressed against a table saw. The Cash family’s eldest son, and golden child, died a week later.
His brother’s death altered Cash’s life in several ways. The sadness left a void unfilled by thousands of pills. It reoriented the father-son relationship. The distant family patriarch, who later killed Johnny’s dog after it had killed several chickens, blamed one son for the other’s death. Johnny, even when arriving at the Grand Old Opry or the White House, never knew fatherly approval. And most significantly, the tragedy prompted the mourning brother to enter a church eight days later and accept Jesus Christ as his savior.
Johnny Cash’s life is a Christian story of redemption.
One of the singer’s best and worst attributes was his generosity, which stemmed in part from his faith and in part from the faith others had put in him. Cash’s struggling family got a second chance through a New Deal project awarding farm land—barely arable farm land, as it happened, for those settling in Dyess, Arkansas—to the Depression’s destitute. John’s mother encouraged his talents when his father scoffed at them. Later, an appliance-store owner provided the struggling singer with a job, loans, and sponsorship of Cash’s 15-minute Memphis radio program.
Once the rescued had the ability to rescue, he himself needed a rescuer. Cash was a sucker. Folsom Prison inmate Glen Sherley, whose “Greystone Chapel” found its way into Cash’s set list in his famous concert at the penal institution, served as the poster child for both the country artist’s activism and his gullibility. “To Cash, Sherley, who was four years younger, was living proof of redemption, which is why he spent months lobbying California prison authorities to grant Sherley a parole,” writes Hilburn, noting that the singer “had met the man for only a few minutes.” Helping to win the release of his very own Hurricane Carter, Cash experienced Sherley’s shiftlessness and psychopathic behavior when he brought the untalented musician on tour. Sherley’s story ended with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Some people are better off stuck in Folsom Prison.
A stint might have done the addicted songsmith some good. From his first pill in 1957 to his last breath in 2003, Cash, despite stints of much celebrated sobriety, relied on pharmaceuticals to the point where his wives, kids, and bandmates couldn’t rely on him. Those caught in the emotional turmoil left in his wake at least escaped the physical abuse he inflicted upon machinery, wildlife, and his own person.
He flipped his camper on a California highway in 1964; crashed June Carter’s Cadillac into a Nashville telephone poll in 1965, leaving several teeth at the scene; drove a tractor off a cliff and into a frigid lake in 1967; and incinerated a Mercedes in 1982 after mindlessly spinning his wheels in a ditch ignited the grass beneath. When he hallucinated a Murphy bed in his English hotel room, he tore apart a wooden wall with his bare hands to get to it. He torched 508 acres of the Los Padres National Forest, killing 49 of the area’s 53 condors and nearly killing himself, too. As he defiantly explained in court, “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards.” The birds exacted their revenge in 1983, when Cash squared off with an ostrich on a sylvan stroll. The creature slashed him down the middle and broke five of the singer’s ribs. Here, as elsewhere, medication provoked an event that provoked more medication.
Amphetamines proved a performance-inhibiting drug. Apart from drying out his voice, they made Cash erratic. He cancelled tour dates and studio sessions. His periodic successes as an artist generally reflected his periodic successes in sobriety. His initial Sun Studio stardom (country #1s “I Walk the Line,” “There You Go,” “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” “Guess Things Happen That Way”) preceded his drug addiction. His ’60s second coming—the prison concerts, ABC’s “Johnny Cash Show,” and the crossover pop-chart smashes “Folsom Prison Blues” and “A Boy Named Sue”—coincided with his rebirth as a narcotics teetotaler. The birth of a son will have that effect on a man.
But the drugs returned, and artistically fallow periods followed closely behind. Cash ventured to Israel to shoot a life of Christ for the silver screen, wrote a novelized biography of St. Paul, and focused increasingly on gospel music. He sought solace for his professional decline by blaming it on his emphasis on Christianity. “I made public professions of faith in God thru [sic] Jesus Christ,” he wrote daughter Rosanne in the late 1970s. “Boy, that one really turned a lot of people off, which thrills me to death (You aren’t a good Christian unless you suffer).”
Desperate for a hit, Cash donned a chicken suit in a video for his 1985 novelty song “Chicken in Black.” Columbia, which had poached him from Sun Records in the 1950s, dropped him in the 1980s. After a few duds, Mercury released him from his next contract, leaving Cash without major-label support for the first time in 35 years. Branson, Missouri, a place where washed up acts go when they’re too washed up for Las Vegas, came calling. Cash initially lent his name to a gauche enterprise called “Cash Country,” which failed to raise sufficient capital and became the Wayne Newton Theatre instead. Cash was reduced to pinch hitting for the venue’s namesake. “As word got out that Cash wasn’t going to be available for all the gladhanding, attendance at his shows slowly decreased,” Hilburn explains. “Paid attendance for the second week, for instance, ranged from 907 to 2,084.”
But Cash had been born on the bottom, and had lived as an example of the redemption story central to his faith, so what appeared then as the end proved but the nadir in an unpredictable orbit that would once again reach apogee.
A bald and bearded angel appeared to rescue the fallen. Rick Rubin’s series of recordings with Cash resurrected the man in black’s career by introducing him to new audiences, including the uninitiated young and the world of rock. The sixtysomething Cash’s stark treatment of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” Sting’s “I Hung My Head,” and Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” captured Cash as much as something unheard in the original songs themselves. But the most enduring track of the Rubin sessions was one of the few penned by Cash. The haunting “When the Man Comes Around” dealt with judgment day, which its dying author surely saw approaching.
“No one—not even Sam Phillips—had understood the depth and range of Cash’s artistry or worked as hard at keeping Cash focused on his strengths as Rubin,” Hilburn contends. He concedes that the Rubin-produced albums were more talked about than bought. But in this, as in much else, what matters to Hilburn is critical approval rather than the relationship Cash forged with fans as uncouth as anyone raised in Dyess. Hilburn grew up on country music in Louisiana but nevertheless sees Cash as one might imagine a 35-year veteran rock critic for the Los Angeles Times would. Cash’s significance stems from his relationship to Bob Dylan, Rick Rubin, and the rock cognoscenti, and—as captured by that iconic photograph of his subject issuing a middle-fingered salute—his occasional alienation from the Nashville establishment. Hilburn’s treatment of Cash’s 1964 appearance before the hipsters at the Newport Folk Festival reflects this bias. “The cultural elite had spoken: Johnny Cash was a major artist,” Hilburn notes of a performer boasting seven country #1 hits by that point. “He was on his way to becoming the most important figure in country music since Hank Williams.” In other words, he was a country artist accepted by northeastern tastemakers.
Johnny Cash eluded the pathetic curtain calls of the bloated King and the emaciated King of Pop, two men who also acquired a taste for the poison of prescription pills. A life overflowing with sad moments enjoyed a happy ending. Many of his peers savored higher highs. Yet who but his Redeemer enjoyed a better encore?
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game.