Johnny Cash: The Life

By Dahl, Bill | ARSC Journal, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Johnny Cash: The Life


Dahl, Bill, ARSC Journal


Johnny Cash: The Life. By Robert Hilburn. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013. 679 pp (hardcover). Photos, Guide to Recordings and DVDs, Source Notes, Index. ISBN 978-0-316-19475-4

There has been no shortage of books published in recent years chronicling the life and times of country music superstar Johnny Cash. The Man in Black wrote two autobiographies (only a genuine icon like Cash rates more than one). His first wife Vivian had her say. So did Cash's daughter Rosanne (a star in her own right), son John Carter Cash, and his longtime bassist Marshall Grant. So longtime Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn clearly had his work cut out for him when he sat down to write this in-depth biography. What was left to say about the legendary guitar-toting troubadour, who transcended the usual country music stereotyping to seemingly appeal to everyone, from proud hardcore hillbillies to long-haired counterculture types?

As it turns out, there was plenty of room for one more Cash tome. Hilburn doesn't really uncover any fresh scandals or present any major epiphanies, but The Life is in all likelihood the most complete, satisfying overview of Johnny's magnificent career yet to grace the bookshelves, the work to turn to first when the urge strikes to read about him. Even the most casual music fan will find much to appreciate as Hilburn traces Cash's impoverished beginnings in Dyess, Arkansas. and his subsequent Air Force hitch in West Germany, when he started to get serious about music as relaxation from his military duties. By the time he returned stateside, Cash was ready to try his hand as a bandleader, recruiting Grant and technically-limited lead guitarist Luther Perkins as his band, who came to be known as Tennessee Two. Though thoroughly inexperienced in the music biz, Cash had the excellent sense to hit up Sun Records in Memphis for an audition. Sun owner Sam Phillips recognized there was something special in Cash's flinty, deep-hued vocal approach and Perkins' simple but distinctive "boom-tacka-boom" guitar underpinnings. …

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