Soon, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘So Doggone Lonesome’ rose to no 4, followed, in 1956, by no 1 hits ‘I Walk The Line’ and ‘There You Go’. Cash had been a star for two years when he was finalising his debut album, Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar, in November, 1957.
Hilburn’s well-researched book brings this radio era vividly to life.
He traces Cash’s winding tale from his humble beginnings as JR Cash (his parents gave him initials as a Christian name) on a small sub-let dirt farm in Dyess, Arkansas, to his acclaimed final recordings in the 1990s and 2000s with producer Rick Rubin.
The book is strong on Cash’s musical history. Hilburn tells how Sun Records’ producer, Jack Clement, admired ‘Big River’, Cash’s tale of a lovelorn Minnesota man whose woman has departed on a river boat to New Orleans.
Clement’s love for ‘Big River’ was shared by Bob Dylan, who said: “There are so many ways you can go at something in a song. One thing is to give life to inanimate objects. Johnny Cash is good at that. He’s got the line that goes, ‘A freighter said, ‘She’s been here, but she’s gone, boy, she’s gone’. That’s great. That’s high art. If you do that in a song, you usually turn it on its head right there and then.”
Bizarrely, ‘Big River’ was the B-side to the radio-friendly no 1 hit, ‘Ballad of a Teenage Queen’, a kitsch pop song written by Clement.
Cash was tiring of Sun Records. He felt sidelined by being given Clement as his producer, while Sam Phillips was overly focused on chart-topping piano star, Jerry Lee Lewis.
It is in moments like this that Hilburn’s thorough, even-handed approach gives his book real depth and value. He quotes Carl ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ Perkins’ equally distrustful view of Phillips and Sun Records, but he also gives credence to Clement’s opinion that Perkins and Cash were overly sensitive, and notes that Sun was still guiding both stars to no 1 in their respective rock and country charts. Hilburn quotes Phillips’ view that Perkins and Cash had forgotten that Phillips lavished attention on new stars to welcome them to the stable. Phillips felt Perkins and Cash were mature enough to keep working without his constant nurturing.
Phillips was wrong. Cash’s contract with Sun was due to expire in August, 1958, and Columbia Records was courting him. Cash asked Phillips to raise his share of the royalties from 3c to 5c per record sold. Phillips refused. Cash called Columbia back.
Before the end of 1958, Cash was again at no 1 in the US country charts, this time with ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’, which was recorded with Columbia and and penned by Clement. Hilburn has great affection for Cash, but he paints a warts ’n’ all portrait. While Cash’s wife, Vivian Liberto, was pregnant with their third child, Cash was having sex with a string of fans. Cash would read the Bible, spend an hour on the phone most evenings selectively recounting his day to Vivian, yet also pursue fellow touring country star, Lorrie Collins, who was 15. Cash was angered when he heard that Collins had become engaged to teen idol, Ricky Nelson. Back on tour, Cash challenged her. When she confirmed the engagement, Cash walked away angrily. He didn’t back off in the months that followed, openly showing his disapproval of the engagement. “I could feel that,” said Lorrie.
Hilburn’s depiction of Cash pre-stardom is equally honest. Hilburn admires the boy’s shy disposition and dreamy nature. Cash’s mother, Carrie, had a benign view of the boy’s nascent creativity. The reader also feels for young Cash in his failed attempts to bond with his father, Ray, who openly blamed JR for the death of his elder brother, Jack, in a carpentry accident.
One of the strongest photos in the book features a sullen JR being hugged by a cheerful Jack. The Walk The Line movie makes much of this formative sibling relationship, as does this book. Hilburn’s photo caption states: “The contrasting expressions of Cash and his brother, Jack, mirror the differences the boys’ parents saw in their sons. Where Ray thought of Jack as enthusiastic and focused, he looked upon JR as lazy and unresponsive. Carrie viewed JR more sympathetically. She believed his quiet demeanour suggested a thoughtful and sensitive child.”
As a 19-year-old army recruit in Germany, Cash finally enjoyed workplace success, as a trainee code breaker. Hilburn also quotes extensively from Cash’s letters to Vivian, whom he had only met a month before leaving for Germany. Cash was an enthusiastic and romantic letter writer.
Nonetheless, while reading the Bible every day, Cash fell to the temptations of hard liquor and prostitutes while on weekend leave. Wracked with guilt, he stopped taking leave.
Yet, when Vivian recounted going to a party with a boy, Cash threatened to break up with her unless she promised to stay in until his three-year German tour ended. She must remain a virgin. However, Cash was 15 when he lost his virginity to a girl, known around the town as ‘easy to get’. Cash carried a deep shame from the night.
It was possible she was at least somewhat mentally challenged, and John was still so sensitive about that night that he apparently changed the girl’s name to avoid embarrassing her, or her family, as he discussed it with a friend.”
While praising Cash’s lifelong fight for the downtrodden, Hilburn makes no excuses for the star’s inconsistencies. He praises Cash’s poetic recounting of his life, but debunks myths Cash told about himself, including his alleged 1967 spiritual epiphany in the Nickajack Cave, on the Tennessee River.
Drug-weary Cash said he went into the cave to die, but a wisp of air drew him out; on exiting, he met his new love, June Carter, and his mother. Cash decided this was the moment to end his drug-taking. However, the drugs continued after that day, and “the cave was underwater in the fall of 1967.”
And yet, Cash does emerge from this book as truly heroic, albeit more human. It is a testament to Hilburn that all of Cash’s children have praised the book’s honesty.