Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn; Little Brown, 679 pages ($32). Robert Hilburn was there at the beginning – the second beginning to be absolutely precise. Until he departed the Los Angeles Times after 30 years as one of the truly venerable figures in the pop music critic’s trade, Hilburn logged many hours covering and interviewing Johnny Cash. Hilburn was there at Folsom Prison (there is a picture to prove it), when Cash recorded the performance for Columbia that gave his career a gigantic and, in part, unexpected second life, which recalibrated everyone’s thinking.
Cash was both the indulged and favorite rebel of the American mainstream and the only consort of Billy Graham and Richard Nixon likely to be accorded automatic, unquestioned reverence by the more strenuously skeptical members of America’s onetime youth “counterculture.” (No, Cash wasn’t going to sing someone else’s hit “Welfare Cadillac” for Nixon and his buddies at the White House even though he was requested to. He did sing his youth-sympathetic song “What Is Truth.” It was, says Hilburn, the first time Cash’s father Ray had ever looked proud of his son.)
It’s Cash’s often graceful way of containing opposites that doesn’t seem as well-presented here as you might hope it to be. This isn’t quite the classic American pop music biography that, say, Peter Guralnick’s Elvis books are or Nick Tosches’ “Hellfire” and “Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams” are. But there’s no question that biopics nothwithstanding, this is a very big and significant American life and this is a very big and thorough book about that life by a writer steeped enough in it (and privy to all its best sources) to present a definitive version of the facts for years to come.
Here, for instance, is a story from Page 533 of the book. Cash happens to meet up in the men’s room with Keith Richards at Cash’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In tribute to the master, “Keef” sings a chorus of Cash’s relatively obscure song “Loading Coal” for him. After finishing his business, goes the story, Cash zips up and joins Richards for the outchorus. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that “Keef’s” way of telling the tale on the book’s publicity website is funkier and more ribald than the version in the book.
– Jeff Simon