Music writer Robert Hilburn on the love, artistry and comeback of Johnny Cash

BY Arts Desk  December 16, 2013 at 1:40 PM EDT


Robert Hilburn talks to chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown about his new book, “Johnny Cash: The Life.”

“Johnny Cash talked right from the heart,” says Robert Hilburn, longtime former music critic for the Los Angeles Times and author of a new Cash biography. “That was his great gift … that was one of the reasons I wanted to write the book. I wanted someone to be able to understand how important and beloved he was in this time.”

Hilburn was the only music journalist at Cash’s famous 1968 concert at Folsom Prison. And he was the last person to interview the musician with his wife, June Carter Cash, before they each died in 2003. It is with that intimate, long-term knowledge that Hilburn reconstructs Cash’s story in “Johnny Cash: The Life.”

The new biography doesn’t sugar coat the life of Cash — an iconic musician who battled personal demons. In comparison, Hilburn likens “Walk the Line,” the 2005 movie portrayal of Cash and Carter’s romance, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, to a “fairytale.”

“Johnny Cash: The Life” starts with Cash’s childhood in rural Arkansas, following the “Man in Black” through the death of his older brother, his rise and fall and rise again as an esteemed musician, his battle with addiction, and of course his relationship with June.

Hilburn says he takes readers through the “tawdry” beginning of their romance (“When he finally asked her to marry him, three other women were shocked because they thought he was going to ask them,” he says) and other ups and downs.

But in Hilburn’s eyes, his partnership was at the very heart of what he wanted people to understand.

“That was part of Cash’s message — if you’re always having problems, try to stick with it. Things will be better.”

Watch chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown’s broadcast conversation with Robert Hilburn’s on “Johnny Cash: The Life”.