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Robert Hilburn's "Johnny Cash: The Life" Reviewed

Hilburn’s missed opportunity
















Writing a biography on a musician is a tricky balancing act – the author needs to maintain a critical perspective while also being able to translate the emotional impact of the work. For example, in Joe Nick Patoski’s book Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, Patoski managed to maintain factual accuracy, describe Willie’s unique voice, detail the intricacies of the ever-changing music business, and give the reader a sense of Willie’s character and beliefs. Alternately, a few years ago, a book written about a major ‘80s country star was filled with so much breathless hyperbole, my conclusion after reading the effort was not that I admired the artist more, I simply felt embarrassed for the author. Robert Hilburn’s highly anticipated new book about Johnny Cash falls between those extremes.

Written and researched for a period of years, “The Life” is an exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, look at The Man in Black. Detailed to a fault, the over 600-page tome, describes a complicated character – Cash was part visionary, shaman, manipulator, chameleon. Hilburn does not shy away from Cash’s shortcomings – this is a story about a drug addict as much as it is a musician. The early narrative is well known to most fans – growing up in poverty in rural Arkansas, the emotional impact of the death of his brother Jack, the dysfunctional relationship with his father, the years of military service in Germany. Within the framework of the story, we learn of Cash’s intellectual curiosity, determination, intensity, as well as his tendencies to be self-absorbed, self-destructive, and mercurial.

After leaving the mentorship of Sam Phillips, Cash’s career began to flounder on Columbia Records, due to poor material and drug addiction. The affair with June Carter lasted for years as Cash neglected his wife and children. An unsung hero in his late 1960’s comeback phase was producer Bob Johnston, who admired Cash’s artistic instincts and knew how to both challenge and inspire the singer. Hilburn’s writing about the “Folsom prison” phase of his career – explaining John’s innate ability to relate to any type of audience and his legitimate compassion for a prison population that many people would view with, at best, apprehension is the strongest writing in the book.

Like fellow Sun artist Jerry Lee, Cash was in a constant battle with sin and salvation, performing regularly for Billy Graham’s revivals, while having affairs and addicted to drugs. The chapters of his personal and artistic decline in the 1970s and 1980s are particularly tedious. Cash lacked the discipline to consistently produce strong material. He had three great mentors – Sam Phillips at Sun, Bob Johnston at Columbia, and Rick Rubin during the last decade of his life. Left to his own devices, and he was often surrounded by enablers in his personal and professional life, Cash lacked discipline and sound judgment.

Hilburn tells the Cash story with an endless set of facts and minutiae, but often writes dispassionately. Cash was one of the most unique voices, as a singer, writer, and interpreter, in the history of country music. Generations of listeners connected with Cash’s work in a deeply emotional way, as Cash could impart a sense of spirituality, wisdom, humor, and mystery. There is little time spent describing the emotional impact of the music and often Hilburn name checks other sources for validity. It’s all well and good that Cash was admired by Bob Dylan and Tom Petty and Bono and various rock critics and was a peer of Elvis and Jerry Lee and Carl Perkins. However, it’s somewhat mystifying that Hilburn would rely on third party quotes and recognition instead of trying to define the gravitas of Cash in his own voice.

This is not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination and Hilburn deserves his status as a highly respected critic and author. However, this was a missed opportunity to provide illumination instead of simply information.

Grade – B

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