I just finished the biography Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn. It’s truly captures the full spectrum of The Man In Black and is a perfect companion piece to Peter Guralnick’s two biographies on Elvis Presley “Last Train To Memphis” and “Careless Love“. In fact, Robert Hilburn could have divided up these two books to go from Cash’s childhood to his TV show for one book and then followed it up with Cash’s downfall in the 70s and 80s to his triumphant return in the spotlight with his American Recordings starting in the 90s right up until his death in 2003.
Reviews have been glowing and well deserved so this is not exactly a review as an observation on how I read this book. There are so many tools at my disposal now that I found when used, it added an additional element to my enjoyment of the book.
When certain passages talked about songs or listed the lyrics to a song, I found myself putting down the book and picking up my phone to listen to the song. In particular, I never realized that Johnny Cash loved the concept album. Two of his most beloved albums, Ride This Train (1960) and Bitter Tears (Ballads of The American Indian) (1964) were one of the reasons music fans identified with his songs of discovery and the downtrodden. These albums including Johnny’s original commentary on Ride This Train are easily found on Spotify.
I also learned that Johnny Cash lived in the San Fernando Valley at 4259 Hayvenhurst so of course I had to pull it up on Google Maps.
There is also the low point in Johnny’s career in 1984 when he made a novelty record called “Chicken In Black”. His daughter Rosanne was embarrassed for her dad and Johnny had a change of heart and asked to pull the song immediately but thanks to YouTube I was able to pull it up the video with a live performance synced to it.
Fortunately as we all know Johnny made a triumphant return to tradional song recordings and brilliant interpretations of post punk songs. This of course led me to pull up the most moving video ever made; Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”.