In the pantheon of American cool, it's tough to top Johnny Cash. He's right up there with Marlon Brando, Miles Davis and Jesse James. Cash has had die-hard fans of every stripe, from the Rev. Billy Graham, who for decades featured him on his evangelical crusades, to director Quentin Tarantino, who champions Cash songs like "Folsom Prison Blues" as "poems to the criminal mentality." Ten years after his death at 71, he is still a hero for millions allergic to any other country music, and his legacy as a rebel has inspired countless regrettable tattoos.
For his followers, Cash was more prophet than entertainer, offering a message of redemption as deep and alluring as his signature voice, his timeless music and his tormented life. "People believed in Johnny Cash," said his longtime bass player Marshall Grant. "They didn't just like his music. They believed in him."
Johnny Cash at the Columbia Recording Studio in Los Angeles in 1961, the year the Carter family (including future wife June) joined him on the road. Copyright Leigh Wiener
Cash's notorious struggles with drug addiction and his outlaw ways only made him more believable, and forgivable, to his core audience. No matter how many motel rooms he trashed or how many drunken nights he spent in jail, he was always welcomed into the living rooms of middle America. Who else could get away with singing "When Uncle Bill Quit Dope" on a prime-time TV show (as he did in 1971) or serenading Richard Nixon at the White House with his antiwar protest song "What Is Truth"?
In a musical genre known for its simplicity and sincerity, Cash was a complex, conflicted Renaissance man and a restless searcher who spent much of his life on the run from the small-town heartland he championed in his songs. He was a self-mythologizer and storyteller who never let the facts ruin a good yarn. Despite two memoirs written decades apart, he never set the record straight on many of the legends and myths he helped forge through the years.
"Time and again," writes Robert Hilburn in "Johnny Cash: The Life," "he said he wanted people to know his entire story—especially the dark, guilt-ridden, hopeless moments—because he believed in redemption." But such disclosure "was a goal that John didn't always live up to in his own autobiographies because, he said, he didn't want to hurt those close to him."
A former pop-music critic for the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Hilburn got as close to the Cash inner circle as any journalist could. He was the only reporter present at the historic Folsom Prison show in 1968, and he interviewed Cash over the years up to his final days. The result is the most authoritative and revealing portrait to date of the most chronicled figure in country-music history. Having conducted extensive interviews with family members and intimates, Mr. Hilburn uncovers affairs and relapses and car wrecks, but he focuses mainly on his subject's empathetic art, exploring how "someone from a cotton patch in Arkansas could develop such a deep sense of compassion and purpose in his music."
Mr. Hilburn makes a strong case that Cash was, at heart, a writer. He had a love of words and knack for versifying that intensified after the death of his most important boyhood influence, his brother, Jack, killed at 14 in a woodsaw accident, who had aspirations to be a preacher. But Cash's efforts as a fledgling author were overshadowed by "the gift" recognized by his mother when she heard the tall and lean 15-year-old through an open window singing a gospel song. "You've got a gift, J.R. . . . ," she told him. "God's got his hand on you." It was a pronouncement he took as infallible.
When Cash auditioned for Sam Phillips of Sun Records in Memphis in 1954, his singing caught the ear of the producer who had discovered Elvis. Phillips was drawn by the "understated force" and "authority" of Cash's husky baritone, seasoned beyond his 22 years. It came from the deep well of the American folk tradition, conjuring a bygone frontier of tobacco auctions and tent revivals and levee camps, resounding with echoes of hellfire preachers and medicine-show hawkers.
Just as crucial, though, was that Cash had something to say and said it with conviction. He wrote his own material, and he identified with the characters who peopled his songs, from the joyous shoeshine boy of "Get Rhythm" to the coldblooded, haunted killer of "Folsom Prison Blues" to the proud, patriotic veteran in "Ragged Old Flag." His themes stayed the same for six decades, championing the downtrodden and the outcast and the hopeless.
For his backing band, Cash recruited a pair of young novices, Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, dubbed the Tennessee Two. Their uncluttered, rudimentary playing on lead guitar and stand-up bass complemented their leader's commanding vocals and rhythm guitar. The trio's primitivist, bare-bones approach propelled Cash originals like "I Walk the Line" from the country charts onto the pop Hit Parade. "Unlike most singers on the radio at the time, he didn't just sing along with the beat," notes Mr. Hilburn. "He treated every line as if it mattered."
By the time Cash signed with Columbia in 1958, he had a national following, a growing family and a drug habit. By his own account, Cash's dependence on amphetamines—and later on, barbiturates and painkillers—was immediate and lasting and had little to do with the rigors of touring, which is what most musicians of the era used benzedrine and other pep pills for. "I honestly believed the bennies were God-sent to help me be a better performer," he wrote in his first memoir; but "inside that bottle of white pills, which only cost eight or ten dollars for 100, came at no extra cost a demon called Deception."
The drugs triggered a dark side of Cash's already mercurial personality. One of the best testimonials (oddly, not referenced by Mr. Hilburn) of Cash's Jekyll-and Hyde temperament came from another polymath and fellow pillhead, Merle Travis, who mentored Cash and also taught him how to throw a Bowie knife. "I'm impressed with him like a snake behind glass," he said. "There ain't no twilight and there ain't no dusk to Johnny Cash. He's like a sunny day, or he's completely dark."
After his debut for the label, "The Fabulous Johnny Cash," proved a hit on the charts, Columbia let its new star pursue his own musical agenda despite his escalating personal problems. He recorded gospel albums, in part to fulfill a vow that he had made when his brother died, to spread Jesus' promise of salvation as a singer. At Sun, Phillips had discouraged Cash's sacred music, saying it didn't sell, and he proved right.
What galvanized Cash was a series of ambitious concept albums he made in the early 1960s. Inspired by Travis's seminal 1947 LP, "Folk Songs of the Hills," he wove together recitations and spoken segues with folk ballads and original compositions, creating brilliant narratives of word and song. In "Ride This Train" (1960), "Blood Sweat and Tears" (1963) and "Bitter Tears" (1964), he celebrated the pioneers' westward migration, working people and their struggles, and the plight of American Indians. In these albums, still regarded as classics, the singer and the poet fused into a consummate storyteller. All sold poorly.
To research the double-LP "Ballads of the True West," Cash went on drugged-out forays alone in the desert, a landscape so merciless that he imagines God giving it to the devil in "Mean as Hell," a poem he recites on the album. "I slept under mesquite bushes and in gullies," he wrote in the liner notes. "I ate mesquite beans and squeezed the water from a barrel cactus. I was saved once by a forest ranger, lying flat on my face, starving." Along with the drugs, these exercises in physical and psychic extremes, Mr. Hilburn shows, gave Cash what he needed for his art, at great cost to his health and home life.
Cash's overidentification with his subject matter spurred much of his mythmaking, as when he falsely claimed Cherokee blood or when he said that he crawled into Nickajack Cave in 1967 near the Tennessee River intent on never leaving alive. Mr. Hilburn questions the circumstances of this "suicide tale," which Cash said ended with a miraculous escape to freedom.
As the book recounts in meaty but not salacious detail, Cash's empathy for the forlorn and oppressed did not extend to his family, including his first wife and four daughters, as well as friends and band members and managers, who bore the brunt of his drug-induced rampages. "When Cash described himself as a 'C+ Christian' at various times in his life, most thought this American icon was just being humble," writes Mr. Hilburn. "To those who'd been close to him at various points, it appeared he was being a bit generous with his evaluation."
Through most of the '60s, many dismissed Johnny Cash as a lost cause and believed his days were numbered. One chapter in Mr. Hilburn's book is titled "The Deathwatch." But not only did Cash keep cheating death, he found ways to keep salvaging a career on the brink, as when he had a dream about mariachi horns that helped make 1963's "Ring of Fire" his biggest hit yet.
Along with the drugs, Cash took shortcuts in search of his muse, as when he lifted hefty chunks of a 1953 record, "Crescent City Blues," without credit, for his own "Folsom Prison Blues," a theft that later forced him to settle a lawsuit. Mr. Hilburn seems to give Cash a free pass, citing the "breakthrough" of the key line that Cash added, which gives the song its signature shock value: "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die."
When Cash sang those words in his opening number at Folsom Prison in 1968, he won over the hardened convicts and earned himself an 11th-hour reprieve from his label bosses who had all but given up on their strung-out, unbankable star. The book reveals that he was nervous before the 9:40 a.m. show, which he had persuaded Columbia to record for a live album. With his career at stake, he gobbled a hidden stash of pills, despite knowing how the drugs had sabotaged his voice many times before. Producer Bob Johnston told Mr. Hilburn that, when he "later asked him, [Cash] said, 'I took more pills that morning than I ever had in my life.' He was scared."
The dosage apparently gave Cash the edge he needed to connect like a live wire to his audience. As Mr. Hilburn recalls, "the atmosphere was electric as Cash prowled the stage between verses with the pent-up tension of a caged panther." "At Folsom Prison" sold three million copies and catapulted the 35-year-old has-been to new heights of fame.
Cash's second wife, June Carter, often caricatured as a sort of hillbilly Florence Nightingale, gets her due here. If she indeed saved Cash's life and, as Cash always averred, helped to save his soul as well, she took her sweet time about it. Their stormy courtship from 1961 to 1968, conducted mostly on the road while Cash was still married to his first wife, Vivian, featured Cash's worst binges and best post-Sun recordings. It was a chaotic but creative period when he was breaking commandments like hotel furniture. June was the rock that Cash clung to, even as he had an affair with her younger sister, Anita, a singer and member of the Cash troupe. The trysts began shortly after Johnny and June wed in 1968; it remained a guarded family secret until 2003, when an unnamed "insider" told a tabloid that Anita, "on her deathbed in 1999, asked for June's forgiveness for the affair."
After the Folsom album, the couple became country-music royalty. Onstage, June's zany down-home humor lightened her husband's brooding gravitas. Offstage, she played a gracious hostess to an adoring public. Meanwhile, he struggled with relapses, and June herself became hooked on prescription drugs. As Mr. Hilburn shows, they were both more addicted to the road and the roar of the fans than anything else.
His popular TV show secured Cash's status as the Man in Black, and his compulsive mythmaking continued when he debuted a song of that name for a live broadcast audience in 1971. The lyrics are a litany of the social causes he fought for and the underdogs for whom he donned his somber attire. Critics pointed out that he had been wearing black stage clothes since the Sun years, because, as he had said often, dark outfits didn't show dirt stains.
"Johnny Cash: The Life" traces the long descent from the artistic summit of Folsom. In the years between, there were some triumphs, like the gospel album "The Holy Land" (1969). A kind of narrative pilgrimage, it featured tape-recorded impressions that he had made while on location (in Israel) visiting the places that he first heard about as a boy when his mother read to him from the Bible. But there were also embarrassments, such as "Look at Them Beans" (1975), whose cover featured Cash sprawled in a pile of green beans, and the self-parody "Chicken in Black" (1984).
These debacles didn't stop him from starring in a steady supply of made-for-TV movies and ads for gasoline and money machines. He was dropped by Columbia and shunned by country radio. Undaunted, he published a novel about the Apostle Paul, some of which he wrote while in rehab at the Betty Ford Center.
Then, in the early 1990s, came redemption in the form of an unlikely career comeback. Now ailing and in his 60s, Cash summoned his reserves to make a series of stripped-down albums with indie-rock producer Rick Rubin. Mr. Hilburn tends to overrate the uneven quality of this late output, but it did make Cash a darling of the grunge generation and a grizzled symbol of defiance against the music-industry establishment.
As Cash weakened and various illnesses forced him to retire from touring, Mr. Rubin encouraged him to press on in the studio. In this unrelenting documentation of a dying artist, there was a sort of ghoulishness. Some critics cried exploitation. If such was the case, Cash was a willing participant. Smote like Job, he found refuge from the pain in his music, and it gave him purpose. Most important, the nearness of his impending demise inspired him to write again.
In 2002, a year before his death, he worked feverishly for months and composed "The Man Comes Around," a humble elder's unsparing Jeremiad. Along with his devastating mea-culpa cover version of "Hurt" and its vanity-be-damned video, which depicted Cash in his ruined shell of a body, it would help to "cement Cash's legacy," Mr. Hilburn writes near the end of his finely wrought biography. "The Man Comes Around" is a dire warning about Judgment Day, set to an insistent Sun-era guitar riff and framed with a recitation intoned by Cash's ragged voice, as if already emanating from beyond the grave.
Cash considered it his final testament and said as much in one of his last interviews with the author. "I called upon Jesus," he said. "I tried to praise Him with 'The Man Comes Around.' If someone is still listening to my music fifty years from now, I hope they're listening to that song."
—Mr. Dean collaborated with Ricky Skaggs on "Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music," just published by It Books.