BOOK REVIEW: 'Johnny Cash': Meticulous Attention to Facts Sets Robert Hilburn's Biography Apart

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Johnny Cash': Meticulous Attention to Facts Sets Robert Hilburn's Biography Apart

Back in 2009 Robert Hilburn asked Johnny Cash's last manager, Lou Robin, how much of the story of the singer/songwriter's life had been told in the numerous biographies, memoirs and articles, Hilburn writes in his monumental biography, "Johnny Case: The Life (Little, Brown and Company, 688 pages, 16 pages of photos, sources, bibliography, index, $32.00) that the man who managed Cash for more than a quarter century replied "Only about twenty percent."

  Hilburn, who served as the pop music critic and reporter at the Los Angeles Times from 1970 to 2005, more than fills in the other 80 percent in a book that is not only a biography of Cash (1932-2003) and his second wife, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) but is an excellent survey of the country music scene over the past 60 plus years. And it's a very readable account, too.

Full disclosure: I was a staff writer at the L.A. Times from 1976 to 1990 and was an admirer of Hilburn's outstanding reporting and sparkling writing.

One can admire many of Cash's songs, as I do, but also deplore the harmful behavior of Cash. The man who wrote "I Walk the Line" -- a song  attesting to his marital faithfulness to his first wife, Vivian Liberto Cash, was capable of casual one-night stands and the affair with the married June Carter that ended the marriage to Vivian. Hilburn doesn't issue the kind of value judgments I might; he reports the facts and lets the reader make up his/her mind.

Cash quotes many people on the subject of Cash's behavior. I was particularly struck by the views of Marshall Grant, one of the original "Tennessee Three" bandsmen from 1955 and the Sun Records years with Cash. 

On Page 295 Grant, who was  fired in 1980 by Cash after saving his life, wondered why didn't Cash's fans at an engagement in Toronto "recognize how sick he was -- not just this time but over the last few years." Grant and two other members of the band later sued Cash for breaking his word about the equal distribution of income.

Instead of "The Life" for a subtitle, Hilburn could well have used the title he uses for Chapter 27: "The Pills Return and All Hell Breaks Loose."

I've always deplored hypocrites, especially those who make a show of religion, as Cash did with his appearances at Billy Graham's Crusades, and his bad behavior. Give me a moral, ethical atheist anytime over a person who cloaks himself in religion.

It doesn't take a  Freud or a Jung to detect one of the roots of Cash's behavior -- the attitude of his father Ray Cash (1897-1985) who often said J.R. Cash (Johnny's actual name) "wouldn't amount to a hill of beans." Ray favored J.R.'s older brother, Jack, who was killed in a woodworking accident. Something like this lasts a lifetime and undoubtedly affected Cash, who was a sensitive youth who loved reading.

Through many interviews with people who knew Johnny Cash, Hilburn fleshes out the life of an iconic figure in American music, a man who combined genuine religious faith with deep, long-lasting addictions. As music critic for the Los Angeles Times, Hilburn knew Cash well throughout his life: he was the only music journalist at the legendary Folsom Prison concert in 1968, and he interviewed Johnny and June for the final time just months before their deaths in 2003.

In an email exchange, Hilburn attested to the devotion of Johnny Cash's fans ten years after his death: "I just got back from Nashville where I did talks/book signings at the new Johnny Cash Museum and the Country Music Hall of Fame." He added: "I had a really memorable time at Writers Bloc in Santa Monica.. Kris Kristofferson was my guest panelist!!!! and he sang five songs!!"

Kristofferson, born in 1936 in Brownsviile, Texas, figures strongly in the book, as does Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and many more artists, including the children of Cash, Roseanne, from his first marriage, and John Carter Cash, from his marriage to June.

The book will appeal especially to fans of Johnny Cash, but,  as I noted above, the sweeping survey of popular music over the last 60 years that Hilburn provides makes this a book that all music lovers will treasure.

About the Author

Robert Hilburn, born September 25, 1939 in Louisiana, is a pop music critic and author. As critic and music editor of the Los Angeles Times from 1970 to 2005, his reviews, essays and profiles have appeared in hundreds of publications around the world. Hilburn reflects on those years in a memoir, “Corn Flakes with John Lennon (And Other Tales from a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life),” which was published in  2009 by Rodale. He is a member of the nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and lives in Los Angeles. His website: