Academic journal article Notes

Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture

Academic journal article Notes

Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture

Article excerpt

NORTH AMERICAN RURAL AND URBAN Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture. By Jonathan Silverman. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010. [xi, 278 p. ISBN 9781558498266 (hardcover), $80; ISBN 9781558498273 (paperback), $26.95.] Illustrations, endnotes, index.

When country musician Johnny Cash died in 2003, he had in some sense climbed to the height of his career. With awardwinning albums produced by Rick Rubin (known for his work in hip-hop) and outreach to new markets (NPR listeners and MTV viewers), he did what other aging country stars had failed to do: stage a lasting comeback with new material. Cash's career had begun at Sun Records in Memphis alongside those of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. With his first few hits in hand, he signed with Columbia and wound his way through folk and gospel, but had the biggest album successes of his career with recordings dubbed live at prison performances (At Folsom Prison [1968] and At San Quentin [1969]). By the mid 1970s, Cash's career had begun to decline, at least in terms of the music industry's definition of success. His label dropped him in the 1980s and country radio virtually ignored him (as well as other stars of his generation) in favor of new, younger acts.

How then did Cash regain cultural relevance? Or had he lost it in the first place? What would account for multiple Country Music Association and Grammy awards in the years surrounding his death? And why did listeners outside of his traditional audience begin buying his records? These are some of the questions that Jonathan Silverman sets out to answer in his book Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture. Silverman's work is a welcome addition to a growing subfield in studies of Cash, as well as the broader fields of country music and American culture. Over the past six years, biographies, academic books, at least one dissertation, and the biopic of Cash's life Walk the Line (2005) have mined his image and music. Silverman's contribution is not in the area of biography or musical analysis but interpretation. He attempts to explain Cash's career through a very particular lens, that of Cash's own choices about his life and career. Silverman's theoretical underpinning serves also as a main argument of the book, that everything, including an individual's decisions, can be "read" as a text. By focusing on how Cash made the choices he did (when intent is recoverable or even known), the context in which he made them, and their effects on his career, the author presents new and nuanced understandings of his subject. When dealing with a figure of the complexity and symbolic weight of Cash, an author may be tempted to present the subject as static or mysterious. Silverman's method protects him from these pitfalls by demystifying Cash and allowing the reader to see him as a complex, inconsistent, and even irrational human being. At the same time, the author detects persistent patterns that underscore a storyline.

As the title indicates, Silverman has organized the book around nine choices that Cash made about his life and career, with each chapter devoted to one of the choices. The chapters are ordered chronologically, beginning with Cash's move to Memphis at the start of his recording career, and ending with his and his family's hiring of Sotheby's to auction items left in the Cash estate after his death and that of his wife June Carter Cash. In between we learn of his marriages, his faith, his relationship to Columbia, his politics, his attention to prison reform, and so on, each framed in terms of Cash's own agency. Silverman covers every period in the performer's career, often bouncing between his first success in the 1950s and his 1990s comeback within the course of any given chapter.

What at first glance would seem too narrow a focus (a small selection of Cash's actions) provides balance to the project; limiting each chapter to one choice allows Silverman to be at once specific and general, since he uses the main topics as springboards into discussions about reception, background, and country music. …

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