By Colin Woodward
The ink is barely dry on my first book, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War. But, I’ve already begun work on a second book. The subject of it will be Johnny Cash.
The book is an outgrowth of an exhibit I worked on here in Little Rock called Johnny Cash: Arkansas Icon. The exhibit was more than two years in the making. I did a lot of research for it, most of which did not make its way into the exhibit. I’ve been to Kingsland. I’ve been to Dyess. I’ve read the letters, newspapers, and books about Cash’s life. After a while, you feel you’ve read enough. Then it’s time to start writing.
The book will focus on Johnny Cash’s connection to Arkansas. As of today, I have a very rough first chapter that examines Cash’s family’s roots in the United States and the family’s move to Kingsland, Arkansas, in the 1850s. Later chapters will explore Cash’s concerts for Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, the trip to Cummins prison farm, and the trip to Rison in 1976.
Cash has had many biographers, but most have not been academics. None, so far as I know, have been trained historians. Some Cash books have been great. I really enjoyed Robert Hilburn’s recent biography. The Michael Streissguth biography is good, too.
And yet, Cash is in need of someone to write a book based on the documentary record–documents, that the reader can follow in the end notes. My research so far challenges some of the notions we have about Cash. Mine will not be a book about the drugs and throwing of TVs out of windows. It aims to deep into the sociological and psychological roots of Cash’s music.
When I was in graduate school, we weren’t given books to read that were about family. Genealogy wasn’t even mentioned. But as a working historian, I’ve realized how important family history and genealogy is.
Cash’s parents were from Arkansas, but his paternal grandfather was from Georgia. His maternal grandfather was from South Carolina. The first chapter ends with the Cash family packing up and heading to Dyess. Cash then was only three years old.
Although Cash only spent a few years in Kingsland, many of the themes that found their way into his later work had their genesis in Kingsland: the Civil War, trains, Native Americans, and cotton.
This book will be a departure for me. I’m leaving the Civil War for a while to enter the 20th century. My century. It won’t be a traditional biography of Cash, but rather one that focuses on the importance of place, family, and his fans in his career.
Cash lived in Tennessee for most of his life, but he had no family roots there. His move to Nashville was really one of necessity. It was a business decision. But Cash never really identified with the Nashville establishment. His roots were in Arkansas.
I’m not sure where I want to go, publisher wise. But if you work in publishing, feel free to contact me. For now, I have plenty of work to do, researching and writing.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.