Bio wor­thy of Cash’s leg­endary legacy

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Shel­don Birnie

FROM the cot­ton fields of Arkansas to Fol­som Prison, Mu­sic Row to the back streets of El Paso, from the top of the charts to the bot­tom of the bar­gain bins, Johnny Cash’s life was one of ma­jor peaks and dark, flooded val­leys. A man of con­tra­dic­tions and con­vic­tions, Johnny Cash: The Life in­vites read­ers to ride that train along with Cash. And the price of ad­mis­sion — un­like many of Cash’s dru­gad­dled con­certs or mid-pe­riod al­bums — does not dis­ap­point. Robert Hil­burn, a vet­eran mu­sic jour­nal­ist with the LA Times, de­liv­ers a bi­og­ra­phy that pulls no punches. A frank ex­am­i­na­tion of the leg­endary coun­try singer, Johnny Cash: The Life delves at length into both the mu­si­cal legacy and per­sonal life of the leg­endary singer. Ex­ten­sive in­ter­views and re­search form the back­bone of the text, pro­vid­ing in­sight into both Cash’s craft and his in­flu­ence on coun­try and pop mu­sic that res­onates to­day. All the ma­jor play­ers are heard and ac­counted for through­out the bio, from Sun Records founder Sam Phillips to Bob Dy­lan, Marty Stu­art to pro­ducer Rick Ru­bin, Cash’s ex-wife Vi­vian and all of his chil­dren, to coun­try stars such as Merle Hag­gard, Cash’s ex-room­mate Way­lon Jen­nings, and many more. Through­out, Hil­burn’s ca­sual style of sto­ry­telling al­lows the lengthy tome to move along at a com­fort­able clip while the oft-told story of the Man in Black comes across as fresh and ex­cit­ing. Rather than walk­ing the line played out in pop­u­lar cul­ture, Hil­burn is not afraid to ex­pose Cash’s many weak­nesses. Whether look­ing at Cash’s ad­dic­tions or his in­fi­deli­ties through­out both his mar­riages, Hil­burn does so through­out, while never drop­ping to the base level of tabloid jour­nal­ism. Many are fa­mil­iar with the fairy tale of Cash and June Carter’s ro­mance. And while Hil­burn doesn’t blow that true story com­pletely out of the wa­ter, he does pro­vide the reader with greater in­sight. Ul­ti­mately, the story of Johnny and June is a love story of even greater depth and com­mit­ment than por­trayed in 2005’s Academy Award-win­ning Walk the Line. Many of Cash’s older fans are no stranger to his de­vout Chris­tian faith. Through­out his life, Cash was al­ways striv­ing to bring his mes­sage of faith to those who lis­tened to his songs. At times, this cost him both in money out of pocket and in fans who were alien­ated by his in­creas­ing pros­e­ly­tiz­ing from the stage dur­ing the 1970s. Cash was a man of deep con­tra­dic­tions, but worked hard through­out his life to come to terms with those con­tra­dic­tions. Hil­burn’s bi­og­ra­phy does an ex­cel­lent job of show­cas­ing that strug­gle, es­pe­cially when it comes to Cash’s later years. As his old buddy Hag­gard ex­plained, “Cash lived in con­stant, se­ri­ous pain” for the last 10 years of his life. Those fi­nal years are painful even for the reader, but ul­ti­mately, as in Cash’s life, up­lift­ing. Even more re­mark­able is that he pro­duced some of his best work in those years. For any se­ri­ous Cash or coun­try mu­sic fan, Johnny Cash: The Life is a must-read. It’s an in­sight­ful re­minder that Cash was one-of-a-kind. There will never be an­other Man in Black. Shel­don Birnie is a writer and edi­tor liv­ing in Win­nipeg who plays coun­try mu­sic on the week­ends, with at least one

Johnny Cash song in the set.

Johnny Cash:

The Life

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