Mere mortal

From childhood trauma to a very adult drug addiction, the veteran music writer Robert Hilburn’s biography of The Man in Black is as meticulous as its subject is riveting, James McNair writes

Left to right: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash in 1956 at Sun Studios in Tennessee. The impromptu jam session resulted in an album titled The Million Dollar Quartet. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
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The use of the definite article in this book’s title is no empty boast. Johnny Cash: The Life isn’t any old study of The Man In Black – it’s the study.

Now 74, the veteran music writer Robert Hilburn was a critic at the Los Angeles Times for three decades, and he was the only music journalist to witness Cash's fabled, live LP-generating concert at Folsom State Prison, California in January, 1968. He also came to know Cash over the years, interviewing him at length just before his death in 2003. Such are the details that lend this exhaustive 679-page biography extra authority and gravitas.

The author proceeds chronologically in simple but meticulous prose. Hilburn isn’t out to show off his chops; he simply wants a remarkable tale to unfold with minimal interference. From the outset, there’s something almost mythic about Cash’s life story, what with its dramatic trials and tribulations. In 1935, when his cotton-picking family settled in Dyess, Arkansas during The Great Depression, they had to carve their farmland acreage out of the densely wooded, wildly overgrown land. One of the floods that threatened their meagre existence later inspired Cash’s song Five Feet High And Rising. It appeared on 1959’s Songs of Our Soil, an album that oozed authenticity.

If the singer’s saturnine air was more nurture than nature, Hilburn is able to show that one childhood event was key. Cash was only 12 when his elder brother Jack died after an horrific accident with a table saw, and, as if that wasn’t enough, their father Ray held John responsible, despite the fact that he hadn’t even been present.

When Hilburn documents how Ray later shot John’s dog after it killed some chickens in the family coop, one feels for the youngster subjected to this vengeful act of displacement. We also come to understand that Johnny Cash grew up in a staunchly religious, fire-and-brimstone environment where sins – or perceived sins – could have grave repercussions. But at 12 years of age, he wasn’t best-placed to repudiate the guilt his father unfairly foisted upon him.

We learn that Cash was “no hillbilly stereotype”, but rather a highly intelligent and well-read young man. He also loved to play pranks, falsely professed to be part-Cherokee, and acquired an insatiable taste for wiener sausages while stationed in Landsberg, Germany working as a radio intercept officer for the US Air Force.

Upon returning home in 1954, he and his then-fiancée Vivian Liberto settled in Memphis, Tennessee. Fortuitously enough, this was where a certain Elvis Presley was about to set the world alight. It was after Cash witnessed Elvis playing That’s All Right on the back of a flatbed lorry that Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore advised aspiring singer-songwriter John to contact Sun Records’ founder and producer Sam Phillips because he was “lookin’ for new talent”.

Hilburn is good on how Phillips was the first of many producers to admire the calm authority of Cash’s booming baritone. From there, the stage is set to explain the origins of the unmistakable “boom-chicka-boom” sound that would define Cash hits such as I Walk the Line and (Ghost) Riders In the Sky.

Though Cash eventually becomes country music’s most iconic figure, a superstar with his own eponymous TV show, his career trajectory often seems akin to a game of Snakes & Ladders. We see that he was conflicted about his direction (Country singer? Gospel singer? Folk historian?), and witness his struggle to continue writing and procuring world-beating songs.

It’s admirable that, when Kris Kristofferson presents Cash with Sunday Morning Coming Down, wherein an addict experiences an hour or two of devastating clarity, Johnny doesn’t baulk at covering it. The song’s lyric resonated deeply with Cash’s own addiction to amphetamines, and all the associated pain, worry and anger for those around him. He knew the power of a confessional, though, and Kristofferson’s song was another big hit for him.

To his credit, Hilburn is fearless when cataloguing the fallout from Cash’s long-term drug use. The cancelled concerts and drying effect on his voice are one thing; the mood swings that lead him to punch out his younger brother Tommy for giving him a reality-check are quite another.

While it’s important to point out that Cash always championed underdogs, never judged others and could be extraordinarily generous to the needy, at times it’s hard to swallow the book’s jacket sleeve quote from singer Patti Smith, who opines that Hilburn “illuminates Johnny Cash as the moral compass of country music.”

In 1966, when the singer’s infidelities, absentee fatherhood, and life-threatening amphetamine abuse had reduced Vivian Liberto to a depressed, 95-pound wreck fearful of losing custody of their four daughters, it’s telling that Cash’s mother Carrie sided with his wife and advised her to divorce Johnny.

Further, Hilburn shows that the first two decades of Cash’s marriage to June Carter of the Carter Family, a country music dynasty, weren’t always a bed of roses, either. The book flags up allegations that Johnny had affairs with June’s sister Anita and country singer Jan Howard, among others. And when a drugged-up Cash crashes June’s Cadillac, breaking his nose and knocking out four of his teeth in the process, we gain further insight into the chaos and carnage that often littered his personal life.

By page 434 of Hilburn’s book, we’ve only reached 1975, but Cash, then 43, already had good reason to be tired. He had 50 albums, a divorce, years of drug abuse and some 1,800 concerts behind him. When June bears him a son, John Carter, he gets clean for a while, regains his “family man” status in the eyes of the media, then relapses. Soon come the wilderness years, writer’s block and the extended career nadir that saw Cash release the 1984 novelty single, The Chicken in Black.

Even when he’s dropped by Columbia Records, however, there are those who keep the faith on the strength of his past glories. When the Mercury Records executive Steve Popovich gets flak from a music convention attendee who says Cash is a has-been, his retort is unequivocal: “I’ve got news for you, young man. If Johnny Cash is over, country music is over.”

Ultimately, what gives Hilburn’s book power and gets us rooting for Johnny again is the profound personal, then musical, redemption that begins in the late 1980s, then crystallises in the 1990s.

It’s after Cash’s heart surgery in 1988, Hilburn writes, that the singer’s troublesome libido begins to wane. This makes the new love and devotion he feels for June easier to honour, and a simple gratitude that he is still alive also fires a determination to be a better father. He is fully reconciled with his five children and they forgive him.

In 1993, the Midas-touch producer Rick Rubin seeks out Cash to make the first of five masterful and moving albums that he hopes will be “a direct transmission from [Cash’s] heart”. The emotional honesty and stripped-down arrangements of the critically lauded American Recordings quickly becomes the template for veteran artists seeking a year-zero rebirth, and Cash and Rubin create his best-selling album in more than two decades.

The book’s closing chapters are almost unbearably sad. “I’m coming baby.” says Cash, standing at June’s grave, his sight failing and his own body much weakened by bouts of pneumonia. When he dies four months later on September 12, 2003, aged 71, they are reunited.

Hilburn’s epilogue quotes from a tribute to Cash that Bob Dylan wrote for Rolling Stone that October: “If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than The Man In Black.” As Hilburn knows, Dylan hit the nail on the head. Cash’s tremendous charisma and talent were never in doubt, but it was his very human failings that allowed so many fans to feel as though they knew him.

James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.