Book review: Johnny Cash: The Life, by Robert Hilburn

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 5:19pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 5:19pm

Johnny Cash: The Life
by Robert Hilburn
Little, Brown
4 stars

Steve Weinberg

When he died on September 12, 2003, Johnny Cash was one of the most influential singers in the United States, embraced by audiences across musical genres despite his country roots.

After four years of research, Los Angeles Times music writer Robert Hilburn found Cash's life was more complex than he had imagined.

Hilburn faced a classic biographer's dilemma: if the primary reason for a subject's fame is artistry, does it matter to the millions of fans whether the artist is also a drug addict and a breaker of marital vows and a frequently inattentive father, among other flaws? Evaluating Cash's life offstage was especially complex because he was a devout Christian, a husband who loved his wives, a father who loved his children, a loyal friend to many less fortunate than himself.

The result of Hilburn's wrestling with his subject's life and with his own moral compass is perhaps the richest biography of a musician I have ever read.

The insights into the business side of popular music are every bit as educational and enthralling. Furthermore, Hilburn knows how to organise a life in print skilfully, usually following chronology, but departing from it when useful.

About Cash's famous Folsom Prison concert in 1968, Hilburn writes: "Cash knew what it was like to be in jail, to stand before his loved ones in handcuffs, and to walk through the seedy parts of town in search of drugs. He knew the deep pain of breaking his mother's heart and the numbing ache of facing a future without hope."

As for Cash's character offstage, Hilburn is filled with adulation and criticism. Deciding which salacious details to include and which to omit, he reveals he relied on Cash's own words. "Time and again he said he wanted people to know his entire story - especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments - because he believed in redemption and he wanted others to realise that they too could be redeemed no matter how they had stumbled," Hilburn writes.