By Colin Woodward
Robert Hilburn visited Little Rock last Thursday to talk about his new biography on Johnny Cash. It’s too early to say–and I have only just begun to read the book myself–but Hilburn’s will probably stand as the best life of the “Man in Black” yet written. Hilburn’s visit was part of the Arkansas Literary Festival.
Hilburn was an animated speaker. He was also funny, talking about the little-known Cash song “Chicken in Black,” made at the nadir of Cash’s career in the 1980s. With him at Oxford American on Main Street was Rhett Miller, a Texas native from the band the Old 97s, which is named after a tune that Cash and other musicians covered, “The Wreck of the Old 97.” Miller began the session with “Folsom Prison Blues.” His was a worthy rendition, but I couldn’t help but think of what Sonny Burgess had told me in March: every band knows how to play “Folsom Prison Blues.” In any case, Miller’s version got things off to as nice start.
Hilburn has a long association with Cash. The author remembered hearing Cash on the radio around the time “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line” first debuted. Hilburn worked at the L.A. Times for decades. And he told the audience that he was the only music writer at Cash’s landmark January 1968 Folsom concert, which rebooted the singer’s career. Hilburn said he was the only one there because the press had become tired of Cash not showing up. At the time, Cash was a very erratic performer because of his drug use.
Hilburn said he wanted to write about Cash the artist. But he found that was a pretty easy task. What was more difficult, he said, was getting at the truth of many events of Cash’s life, especially his relationships.
Hilburn didn’t disappoint when it came to the juicy stuff–talking about Johnny and June’s tumultuous marriage, which was more like a bad country song than the movie Walk the Line would ever have you believe. Johnny’s extramarital affairs were numerous, including one with June Carter’s sister Anita (who married Johnny’s guitarist Bob Wootton). Nor was Cash’s relationship with his children ideal. Cash also could never be forgiven by his daughter Roseanne for abandoning the family when she was young. Cash loved the road, and months would pass without him visiting his family.
Cash has been the subject of movies and TV treatments. But when it came to the best of them, Walk the Line, Hilburn called the movie “fiction,” not biography, adding that it was the story that June Carter had always wanted to tell. The relationship in the movie was a far cry from the real cheatin’ Johnny Cash. Why did June stay married to a man who was unfaithful? Hilburn said she wanted the legacy: she wanted to always be known as Mrs. Johnny Cash. Nevertheless, the two came very close to divorce at one point.
When it came to other details of his life, Cash, Hilburn noted, had a tendency toward exaggeration. Hilburn has questioned things like whether Cash was ever taking a hundred pills a day, whether he ever tried to commit suicide at Nickajack Cave in Tennessee, and whether or not Cash used to worry about panther attacks when he walked home late at night as a child in Dyess.
Cash’s manager once said that the public probably only ever knew about 20% of the Johnny Cash story. But in telling what wasn’t well known before, Hilburn wanted to write something serious. One thing I was surprised to hear was that the author approached his subject like one would a “statesman.” He said he found inspiration in the David McCullough biography Truman. McCullough, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes, is a good model to emulate. Few biographers have combined sales and scholarship quite as well as McCullough.
Johnny Cash has often been put in contradictory terms–always torn between the darkness and the light. John Carter Cash has complained that the dark side of Cash has been talked about a bit too much lately. Hilburn certainly talked about the darkness. But he also noted how Cash wrote music that wanted to raise people’s spirits. When Cash was starting out in Memphis at Sun Records in the mid-1950s, Sam Phillips had always told him to put “more rhythm” in his songs. One of the best of those Sun songs was “Big River,” which Rhett Miller played. It apparently was Bob Dylan’s favorite Cash tune. And though the song is uptempo, it does have dark lyrics.
Other writers have also written about the contradictions in Cash, not least of all Leigh Edwards in Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity. John Carter Cash may be correct that too many people have emphasized the darkness in Cash, but perhaps they have overstressed the uniqueness of Johnny Cash’s contradictions. All men are contradictions in many ways, should you choose to study them closely. And if Cash was successful, it was because he could tap into the dual nature of his audience, as well as himself.
In any case, Hilburn wanted to tell a good story. And he has. His biography has been doing well, sales-wise. He was kind enough to sign a copy of my book. And I look forward to finishing it.
Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (UVA Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.