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Johnny Cash: The Life

by Robert Hilburn

(London Times)

Country music has thrown up some difficult and conflicted figures; all that southern Baptist upbringing suddenly brought face to face with pills, liquor and fornication. Few could claim to have been more difficult and conflicted than Johnny Cash - and none, perhaps with the exceptions of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, has left a more glorious legacy of recordings.

The key to Cash's brilliance lies in the roots of that conflict, as Robert Hilburn's excellent biography makes clear. A deeply religious man who spent a goodly proportion of his 71 years out of his box on amphetamines and alcohol, Cash also, as he put it in sometimes flagellating letters to himself, was highly susceptible to adulterous carnal delights. It left us, the listeners, with a remarkable catalogue of often harrowing and usually beautiful music. It did not, though, leave Mr Cash terribly happy, one supposes. He considered topping himself on several occasions.

JR Cash was born in 1932 in Arkansas and raised in the dirt-poor, white-trash cotton-farming community of Dyess. To his father's chagrin, he was a dreamy, rather intellectual child, often caught singing to himself. Later, he was by all accounts a talented code-breaker for the US Air Force and a less adept salesman; but his ambition was to sing.

He pestered the renowned Memphis producer Sam Phillips (whose energies were taken up with Elvis and Carl Perkins) to record him and, to his great credit, Phillips saw in the raw youngster a singularity and a brilliance. Those early singles for Sun Records were starkly wonderful, the simple boom-chicka-boom backing as much a consequence of his band The Tennessee Two's (later Three) ineptitude as a conscious wish for authenticity. Of those first records, I Walk the Line remains the song that perhaps best defined him; written for the sweetheart he married, Vivian, by the time it hit the country charts he was walking several other lines simultaneously, so to speak. The marriage endured, remarkably, for 11 years.

The drugs really took hold in the 1960s, leaving him gaunt-faced, frozen-eyed and often unable to whisper, never mind sing. It culminated in his arrest for importing, illegally, thousands of pills from Mexico; his sales nose-dived and he became, in musical terms, an irrelevance.

Resurrection number one came with a performance for the inmates of Folsom prison in 1968, which many - including Hilburn - consider the greatest country album ever made. Four years of great success followed before the pills came back and he descended into cabaret schlock and television specials - missing out on the exciting 'outlaw' country revolution spearheaded by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Guy Clarke that, through his early recordings, he could rightly claim to have anticipated. The hip young lefties who approved of the Folsom prison stuff were less approving of Cash's willingness to perform at the White House for Richard Nixon, although to his credit he disdained Nixon's request to sing the crass hippie-stomping anthem Okie from Muskogee. Cash's new best friend, the evangelist Billy Graham, and his own determination to record gospel albums at every opportunity, lost him more fans and eventually his record label dropped him.

Resurrection number two, then, was a long time coming and arrived via an unexpected source: the young metal and rap producer Rick Rubin, who saw in Cash the same power Phillips noticed nearly 40 years before, and who reinvigorated his career with a series of albums in which he covered the works of a modern generation of rock stars - Tom Petty, Neil Young, Nick Cave and Beck. The years of abuse had taken their toll, though, and after numerous operations on his heart and his stomach he died from complications of diabetes in 2003.

It is a wonder he lasted that long. In the 1960s he almost killed himself in a fire he inadvertently started in a national park. The park was destroyed along with almost its entire population of endangered condors. Later, avian life enjoyed its revenge when Cash was again almost killed - by an enraged ostrich he kept on his farm, which ripped him from neck to waist. There is plenty of madness in this book: at one point, almost every member of the Cash entourage - Johnny, his second wife, June, his sons, his stepdaughters, his granddaughter - is in rehab for one or another kind of bodily abuse. But Cash had a warmth of spirit, along with undoubted genius, and he is badly missed.

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