By DOUGLAS BRINKLEY
The New York Times
Published: October 15, 2006
By Michael Streissguth.
Illustrated. 334 pp. Da Capo Press. $26.
Long before Johnny Cash became immortalized as the “Man in Black” because he refused to wear rhinestones at the Grand Ole Opry, he was grappling with twisted visions of sin and salvation, like a soapbox preacher trying to decode God’s Plan in the public square. Gospel songs like “I’ll Fly Away” filtered through him and never left. Raised impoverished during the Great Depression, this brooding young Arkansan absorbed tall tales and hillbilly banter like a kerosene-hungry railroad lantern. At night, the dysfunctional Cash family would gather at the kitchen table and talk about Jesus Christ. By day, Johnny (or J. R., as he was called) would work the cotton fields reciting old-time Protestant hymns to ward off the tedium.
Then there were the Gene Autry movies that brought cowboy cavalcades into his imaginative life, thrilling him with romantic notions of the purple sage. By all accounts, he was the proverbial kid by the camp ring of fire, leaning forward with bated breath, absorbing his elders’ rural cadences with the attentive ears of a piano tuner. No mundane utterance passed his notice. Somehow he managed to extract the ethereal from even cornball blather. “He was the one who could express himself and his feelings more than the rest of us,” one childhood friend recalls. “He was sensitive. He thought a little deeper than the rest of us. He went way down deep inside and brought up feelings.”
Among the numerous coming-of-age anecdotes that populate the early chapters of Michael Streissguth’s richly detailed “Johnny Cash: The Biography,” however, one stands out. It involves a Texas hobo who wore a ragged blue bandanna around his neck, like the ghost of Jimmie Rodgers. Occasionally this mysterious codger, named Jim George (or so he said), would appear at the Cash homestead, eager to swap yarns for a hot meal. Because this drifter “smelled like a barnyard,” as Cash later explained, the singer’s mother would coax Jim George to wash up. But even in the bath, he wouldn’t take off his bandanna. When teased about this, the vagabond turned somber. “I don’t want you to see the rope burns,” he said. “I was hanged with some of the James Gang in 1882.”
A whopper like that, delivered during World War II by a bum, defies credibility. But Cash, even as late as 1997, seemed to take Jim George at his word. “We didn’t have any reason not to,” Cash told The Journal of Country Music. “The law was if they hanged you and you didn’t die, you were set free.”
No recent American recording artist — not even a trickster like Bob Dylan or Miles Davis — has been as proficient at male mythmaking as Cash was. Whether it was honoring the Texas gunslinger John Wesley Hardin or the alcoholic Iwo Jima veteran Ira Hayes or the country music legend Hank Williams, among dozens of others, Cash’s repertory brimmed with songs about these heroic all-American Lazaruses. The Sun Records impresario Sam Phillips once claimed that Howlin’ Wolf’s voice was “where the soul of a man never dies.” The same could be said of Cash. Hardin, Hayes and Williams may have perished as mortals, but Cash made sure their brazen exploits were remembered. Like Jim George, Cash seemed to be telling stories from the half-grave, full of roguish confessions and redemptive pleas, reporting back to listeners what it meant to shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die, or scream “Hey Porter” as the Orange Blossom Special headed straight for San Quentin. For all his uplifting Billy Graham crusade performances, and there were many, it was his dark real-life travails — the horrific death of his older brother Jack by a wood-shop blade, his penchant for gobbling amphetamines, his bouts of infidelity — that inspired his most enduring art.
What makes this so valuable a biography is that Streissguth, an associate professor of English at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, debunks the myths that have enveloped Cash, in large part owing to two autobiographies, “Man in Black” (1975) and “Cash” (1997), both full of exaggerations. Although Streissguth is not the literary equal of Peter Guralnick (Elvis Presley) or Elijah Wald (Robert Johnson), he avoids the gush-and-awe prose of Rolling Stone and Spin.
Still, he sometimes approaches his subject like a fastidious academic clinging to notecards. The amount of new archival material he unearths, however, is truly impressive. “When one might have expected his pen to be dulled by the demands of stardom, the fogs of drug addiction or the inadequacy of rural education, he wrote long and thoughtful letters in hotel rooms, airplanes, at home and in his office,” Streissguth says of Cash’s correspondence. “In his rounded script or pecked out on a typewriter, his letters were about his faith, his love life, his anger and ideas for his career. He wrote to Air Force buddies, his wife, his manager and his daughters. He seemed programmed to write.”
“Johnny Cash” makes the reader want to rediscover the hardscrabble troubadour’s back catalog. Besides the five brilliant albums Cash recorded with the producer Rick Rubin for American Recordings between 1994 and 2003, you’ll want to listen to “Johnny 99” (including a haunting version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman”), “Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town” (particularly Elvis Costello’s “Big Light”) and “John R. Cash” (especially Tim Hardin’s song “The Lady Came From Baltimore”) after reading this book. This is also true of Cash’s campy Highwaymen collaborations with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. The making of the Nashville neo-folk sessions with Bob Dylan in 1969 — available on bootlegs, and well worth the hunt — is explored to its natural conclusion: it led to the birth of country/folk rock.
Although much of Cash’s rags-to-riches story line is well known, Streissguth offers new revelations. The recent film “Walk the Line,” for example, ended with Cash clean and sober. In truth, although he was off drugs from 1970 to 1976, he reverted to his old ways about the time Jimmy Carter became president, creating deep stresses in his marriage to June Carter Cash for almost three decades. In public, Cash frequently portrayed his father as the epitome of a loving patriarch; Streissguth says Ray Cash was often monstrous, constantly belittling his son’s mega-success. Whenever Johnny appeared on TV, his father jealously scoffed that he was “back on the tube acting like a big shot.”
One thing is abundantly clear: Johnny Cash wasn’t a saint and was often hyper-ornery. Three of his daughters — Rosanne, Cindy and Kathy — explain in interviews what it was like having a part-time dad. And they also elaborate on his slow demise in 2003. “We didn’t want him to be in pain anymore,” Kathy says. Cash was an archangel of self-destruction to the bitter end; his entire life was based on warding off demons, so God might embrace him in the Promised Land.
In death, however, Cash has proved more popular than ever. You can’t walk into a Starbucks and not hear him singing Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” or Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds.” The redemptive spirit of Johnny Cash — the American spirit — is very much alive through his music.
In “The Man Comes Around,” one of his last original compositions, Cash pondered apocalyptic rejection versus acceptance as delineated in the Book of Revelation: “Will you partake of that last offered cup / Or disappear into the potter’s ground?” The line is classic Cash: drawn to both darkness and light. That was his struggle. Either way, the songwriter Rodney Crowell was on to something when he claimed that Cash deserved to have his face carved on Mount Rushmore.
Why not? At his best, he was that good.
Douglas Brinkley is a professor of American history at Tulane University and the author of “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”