How Johnny Cash spoke to the heart of America

December 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Longtime music writer Robert Hilburn was inspired to write his new book, "Johnny Cash: The Life," after finding that other biographies didn't tell the full story. Jeffrey Brown talks to Hilburn about the legendary musician's authenticity and gift for storytelling, as well as the well-known personal battles of the "Man in Black."

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: the Man in Black. It’s been 10 years since the legendary singer songwriter died at age 71.

Last week, his estate announced a new album would be released in March. The never-before-heard songs were recorded in 1986. The audiotapes of the original recording sessions recently were discovered in the family archives.

We get a look now at Johnny Cash the man.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the Sun recording studios in Memphis to California’s Folsom Prison, to the famous last video he recorded before he died, Johnny Cash crossed musical boundaries and influenced and moved several generations of singers, songwriters and fans, even while he struggled with his own addictions and pains.

All of this can be found in “Johnny Cash: The Life,” a new biography by Robert Hilburn, who served as chief music critic for The Los Angeles Times for more than 30 years.

Welcome to you.

ROBERT HILBURN, “Johnny Cash: The Life”: Great, Jeff. Thank you. Nice to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: The man himself wrote memoirs. There is the famous hit movie, right, “Walk the Line.” There’s been other biographies.

Why did you feel it was necessary? What has been missed that you wanted to capture?

ROBERT HILBURN: Well, I had known Cash from the Folsom Prison days through a week before he did the “Hurt” video. And I didn’t think about writing a biography until after his death.

I thought he was an amazingly important artist, someone who is going to be remembered 50 years ago, but I wasn’t going to write a biography. Then I saw the movie, I read the books about him, and I didn’t think they told his story. I thought they didn’t explain the artistry of him or the struggle in his private life.

And I thought he deserved to have his story told.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did he have an early sense of mission or struggle? Was that apparent from the very beginning?

ROBERT HILBURN: Yes, yes, absolutely.

He was — came from a — well, one of the things I was fascinated by him, of all the people I interviewed, Dylan, Springsteen, everybody you can imagine that was important in pop music, he was the most mysterious to me.

Where did his artistry come from? He comes from a cotton patch in Arkansas. He enters a field of country music in the ’50s that had no more ambition. No one else had any more ambition than a hit on the jukebox. But he had a mission. He wanted to lift people’s spirits, almost like a minister in a way.

He — he — no matter how much problems you have, no matter how much suffering you have gone through, no matter how much you sinned, don’t lose faith. There’s better times ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that is part reflecting his own life, right, because, I mean, the running theme here, the addictive personality, hurting himself, hurting other people, his career and even his life in danger several times along the way.

ROBERT HILBURN: Well, that’s — that’s the kind of bonus.

I mean, I didn’t realize — I thought I knew Johnny Cash before I started the book. I wasn’t within a hundred miles of knowing Johnny Cash. The first thing you find out is, he gets his sense of artistry on the cotton patch. He and his family in the hot sun would sing Gospel music, and that would comfort him.

He would go to church. Everybody in — all these destitute farmers in this little tiny town would sing Gospel music. They would lift their spirits. So his mission was to lift people’s spirits the way his spirits had been lifted as a child.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write a lot about the myth-making aspect to it, right, the stories that he told about himself. And yet there’s also this incredibly authentic Johnny Cash, the reason I think people connect with him.


JEFFREY BROWN: How do you put these two together, myth-making and the authenticity?


ROBERT HILBURN: The best thing I have heard, Kris Kristofferson wrote a great song about Cash. He is a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.

Now, that’s exactly true. I took 700 pages to write what Kris wrote in those four lines.


ROBERT HILBURN: And part of it was, he’s an artist. He’s a storyteller. Rather than tell you, I went to the market yesterday, he will make a more dramatic way of saying it.

That is part of the storytelling. Never let the facts interfere with a good story. Now, on the other hand, he was this idealistic person who was constantly battling these demons. So he was — he felt the guilt of leaving, abandoning his family. His father never gave him the love he wanted. His brother dies young.

All these things are troubling him. He starts taking pills to try to ease that pain. And, unfortunately, he’s an addict. Other people in country music used to take two or three pills a day to give them energy. He would take 10 and 20 and 30 pills a day. He was spiraling out of control.

JEFFREY BROWN: You talk about that famous moment in 1968 at Folsom Prison. You were the only rock critic/journalist there covering it. That was a moment where he took many pills.

ROBERT HILBURN: Yes, yes, he did.

JEFFREY BROWN: But describe that. Why — why was that moment so important for him?

ROBERT HILBURN: Well, he had — see, the great thing, even maybe — he was a very smart man, first of all. He had a 160 I.Q.

But maybe more than his talent as a songwriter, he had an empathy for the underdog. He was always trying to lift people’s spirits. He had played prisons before and he saw the reaction of these prisoners, because these prisoners, they knew they had had been in jail. They had heard Folsom Prison. They knew he had been in handcuffs on the front pages of a newspaper. His mother had seen that.

So, there was this tremendous rapport. He wanted to do that concert because he wanted to have the best possible audience — audience reaction on radio. The record company didn’t want him particularly to do that. In fact, they didn’t — the only reason I was the only music there, Jeff, was they didn’t want to invite anybody because they were afraid he was going to be stoned and have to cancel the concert.

JEFFREY BROWN: They didn’t want to publicize it at all.

ROBERT HILBURN: No, of course not. Of course not.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it turned out to be legendary.

ROBERT HILBURN: Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic.



It was his thing. His record career was kind of stuttering. He knew, if I could only show, only capture on record the rapport, the feeling I have in that concert — and that did make him a superstar, that and the San Quentin album and the ABC television show.

JEFFREY BROWN: In talking about his artistry, you really focus a lot on his works.


JEFFREY BROWN: He wrote these songs.

ROBERT HILBURN: Yes. Yes. He was…

JEFFREY BROWN: And he had — somehow, words were important to him?

ROBERT HILBURN: Yes, he was always a good writer. In school, he used to do other people’s assignments and homework and stuff. And they would pay him 50 cents.

But he had the sense of poetry and songwriter. And he was always best if he was writing about his own life, “Five Feet High and Rising,” “Hey Porter.” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Kristofferson wrote it, but he empathize with that song, or “The Man in Black.”

When he hold his story — when he tried to write a hit for the jukebox, he wasn’t nearly as good at it. He was much better when he was authentic writing about himself. And that is what he always prized, authenticity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have you figured out — this is my last question here for now, before we do the rest online, but you covered a lot of — you have talked a lot of famous musicians, right? Have you figured out why a Johnny Cash is who he is, and so many others aren’t? What is it that separates the special ones?

ROBERT HILBURN: He had — he had a mission, and he had a charisma, and he — and the subject matter he chose to write about, values of American life, the underdog, every — we’re all underdogs in some way.

We all respond to that. We always — we all felt that he was talking to us. Whether it was a prison, a Native American reservation, everyone felt he was one of them. And so he — he was speaking to the heart of America, somehow, and it came through.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will continue online. I want to ask you especially about June Carter and their relationship.

But, for now, “Johnny Cash: The Life.”

Robert Hilburn, thanks so much.

ROBERT HILBURN: Thanks, Jeff. Thank you.