'Johnny Cash: The Life': a complex man in black

Armed with new research and interviews, Robert Hilburn probes deeper than any previous Cash biographer

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Johnny Cash, among the most literate of all country singers, never allowed facts to interfere with good fiction. That was clear in a 1976 Christian comic book he co-authored.

One section depicted him in the fall of 1967. Hopelessly addicted to pills and suicidal, he sought oblivion by venturing deep into a Tennessee cave. Divine intervention led him back to the entrance where his mother, Carrie, and June Carter, his performing partner and future wife, awaited. Soon after that, Carter and her parents helped Cash beat his addiction cold turkey.

The cave, Robert Hilburn reveals in "Johnny Cash: The Life," was underwater in 1967. Cash's detox, while overseen by the Carters, was medically supervised by Nashville psychiatrist Nat Winston. He didn't totally quit drugs until his son's birth in 1970, and then only for a few years.

By Robert Hilburn.
Little, Brown ($32).

Like Hank Williams and George Jones, Cash's musical and personal narratives are inseparable, a fact Mr. Hilburn, who began covering rock and country for the Los Angeles Times in the 1960s, knows well. The only music reporter attending the 1968 concert that produced the iconic "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison" album, he interviewed the singer and his wife June Carter Cash numerous times. Armed with new research and interviews, he probes deeper than any previous Cash biographer or the Oscar-winning but factually uneven biopic "Walk the Line."

Mr. Hilburn's experience as journalist and music critic yields a detailed, readable account, avoiding the overly stylized prose that sometimes undermines music biographies. His solid critical instincts offer insight into the many ups and downs of Cash's music. He begins with his musical roots, through Cash's days at Sun Records, his 28 years with Columbia, a fruitless interlude at Mercury Records and his American Recordings projects with producer Rick Rubin.

Columbia's Nashville producer Don Law, known for his hands-off approach in the studio, wooed Cash from Sun by offering unprecedented creative freedom. The result: masterpiece concept albums like "Ride This Train," "Ring of Fire" and other classic singles and less impressive efforts. Known for skillfully tailoring his concerts for different audiences, Cash also cultivated a fan base among early '60s collegiate folkies, enhanced by his friendship with Bob Dylan. For a time the two shared a producer: Law's successor, Bob Johnston.

His dark side receives unflinching but never sensationalized attention as the "Animal House" pranks of early tours gave way to a fog of amphetamines, insensitivity, booze and extramarital affairs, poor choices that later led him to call himself a "C-minus Christian."

The dynamic changed when Carter joined his touring show in 1962. The popular Grand Ole Opry singer and comic simultaneously pursued Cash while fighting to get him clean as he spiraled ever closer to death. When they married in 1968 the drugs remained, but his self-control had improved considerably.

Even in triumph, he proved truculent. A household name by 1970, Cash's prime-time ABC variety show did well. That changed when he defied network advice and delivered a lengthy fervent profession of Christian faith that undermined the ratings, making cancellation inevitable. As his records grew less inspired, fans quit buying them, a decline that lasted through most of the 1980s.

Mr. Hilburn offers a straightforward sobering look at Cash's dramatic physical decline, a result of decades of hard living. It began with the late 1970s relapse that threatened his marriage and was further complicated by his wife's own significant drug issues.

Mr. Rubin approached Cash as his health began to erode, leaving him unsure how such a collaboration could possibly amount to much. His answer came when his 1994 "American Recordings" album brought unexpected redemption. The critically praised effort introduced him to another young generation and revealed a broader, deeper musical palette than many realized.

The neuropathy, diabetes and respiratory issues that ended Cash's touring led to frequent serious hospitalizations. Mr. Hilburn adds a troubling footnote: An insider's view that overmedication, involving at least 30 prescribed drugs, may have complicated Cash's later maladies. Nonetheless, his determination to create remained firm. Though shattered by June Carter Cash's unexpected death in May 2003, he would not stop recording until shortly before he died that September.

Cash's life is too often oversimplified into a few iconic moments: the Man in Black persona, the Folsom concert, that infamous 1969 photo of him flipping the bird at San Quentin and the ailing, aging troubadour refusing to go gently into anyone's good night on the "Hurt" video. "Johnny Cash: The Life" reveals the complex, at times tragic, renegade genius beneath it all.

Rich Kienzle blogs about music for the Post-Gazette at "Get Rhythm."

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