Biographer Robert Hilburn

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The pop music critic-turned-biographer shares the backstory of his new text, Johnny Cash: The Life.

Robert Hilburn grew up on the blues and country music styles that birthed rock and roll and, during his three-decade tenure reporting on legends as pop music critic and editor at the Los Angeles Times, elevated pop music journalism. Since leaving the paper, he's written a unique account of the symbiotic relationship between critic and musical artist in a best-selling memoir, Corn Flakes with John Lennon, and a text on Johnny Cash, which has been called the "definitive look at one of the most complex and influential artists ever in popular culture." Hilburn has a journalism degree and also worked as a public information officer for the L.A. Unified School District.


Tavis: Johnny Cash was without a doubt one of the country’s most influential artists, a singer and songwriter who gave voice to the stories and lives of everyday folk.

His life was as complex as any. He was a man filled with self-doubt, a man who battled addiction before finally finding redemption. Writer Robert Hilburn tells Cash’s story in all its contradictions with insight and compassion.

The text is simply titled “Johnny Cash: The Life.” Let’s take a look at Johnny Cash singing one of his most iconic songs, “Folsom Prison Blues.”

[Video clip of Johnny Cash performing]

Tavis: You and I were just talking in the break that clip is a clip of Johnny Cash performing in Compton. You think of Compton in 2014, you don’t think of a country guy headlining in Compton.

Robert Hilburn: Straight out of Compton.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) What was he doing in Compton?

Hilburn: It was a town hall party. There was a country music show, kind of like the Grand Old Opry there, and after the service, a lot of the servicemen moved into that area, Compton, and so it was a real country music haven before hip-hop days.

Tavis: Wow. So Jonathan, can you come in on this t-shirt? Mr. Hilburn has a t-shirt on that I want to show, because I think I see your picture is that (laughter) who is this in this picture?

Hilburn: Well, listening to that song, this is Johnny Cash; I’m standing next to him, at Folsom Prison in 1968. Isn’t that the most amazing that’s me. I look like a narc though. I’ve got a suit on. But that was incredible.

It was my first story for “The L.A. Times.” I was trying to convince them to hire me as a music writer, so I said, “What about doing a story about the man who wrote ‘Folsom Prison’ in Folsom Prison?” They said, “No, we don’t want to give any space to that drug addict. Because that was his reputation at the time.

Tavis: Right. For all the artists who you have written about and covered over the years, and obviously we’re all individuals, but what makes Johnny Cash so different than all the other artists?

Hilburn: Well there’s a bunch of at “The L.A. Times” I wrote it over and over and over again about artists I thought were meaningful Dylan, Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Cash.

Of them all, it seemed to me Cash had the most interesting back story, coming from the cotton fields of Arkansas, entering country music in the 1950s, Tavis, when nobody else in country music had any more ambition than a hit on the jukebox.

But he wanted to use his music to inspire people, so where did that come from? That was kind of the and then I knew all about the demons he went through, the struggle his whole life between the demons, the drugs, and the artistry, and I kind of wanted to explore that path.

Tavis: The demons, the drugs on the one hand, and yet he’s one of those artists who carried with him a Bible everywhere he went.

Hilburn: Well, he wanted he went to church in Arkansas every Monday twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday night, and he heard all these destitute farmers singing gospel music.

It lifted them up. It gave them hope. So in his music, that was his main thing, was trying to lift people up. He was always for the underdog. Ira Hayes, Native Americans, Folsom Prison, prisons.

His message was no matter how much you’ve sinned, no matter how much you’ve stumbled, no matter how much you fall, no matter how far you’ve got from God, don’t give up. You can still be redeemed. As someone says, keep the faith.

Tavis: Yeah, I appreciate that. How influential was that gospel music that Cash was hearing with developing his own sound. Beyond gospel, what are the elements, the ingredients, that help him create his own song stylings?

Hilburn: Well, he grew up listening to country music, but mainly gospel. Not just country gospel. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, from Arkansas. Black gospel.

Tavis: Sure.

Hilburn: He loved the (unintelligible). When he knocked on Sam Phillips’ door after Elvis had “That’s All Right, Mama,” he didn’t want to be the next Elvis Presley, he didn’t want to be a rock star, he wanted to be a gospel singer.

Sam Phillips said, “I’m sorry, son, we can’t sell gospel music. We just can’t merchandise it. So then he turned him over to secular music. As soon as he got to Columbia, a bigger label, he went back and started doing gospel music, back and forth secular music on one hand, gospel music on the other hand.

Sometimes combining them “I Walk the Line” he wrote, famously, everyone knows, as a message to his wife. I’ll be faithful, but in his heart he was also saying I’ll be faithful in a different way. He was talking about in a religious way.

So he one time winked at me and said, “That was my first gospel hit,” even though Sam Phillips never knew that.

Tavis: I’m trying to get, in the brief time that I have, trying to get a sense of how his childhood, or what happened in his childhood that caused him to wrestle with these demons and these drugs. I’m trying to connect those dots.

Hilburn: Well, his (unintelligible) depression, his family had a farm in Kingsland, Arkansas. Cotton I think went from like $125 a bushel I’m not sure how they measured it; big bale to $25. Farmers couldn’t exist anymore.

The federal government, FDR, set up a program, a colony, they called it. We’ll give you 15 acres of land and you we’ll give you a new start. We’ll give you the land, you pay us back someday.

So his father went 200 miles to Dice, Arkansas, and worked every day in the field, hard, hard. It was terrible land. It wasn’t choice farmland, because the government couldn’t afford that. So Cash, from the age of six, would be out there with him in the fields, and they would again, always singing gospel songs to lift their spirits.

Now later, his brother died in an accident. His brother was the golden boy of the family, the father’s he loved the other boy, and he told Johnny he always was pooh-poohing Johnny Cash. “Oh, your dreams are silly, about being a singer.”

After the brother died, he said, “I wish it had been you instead of him.” Now think what that does to the self-image of somebody. All he knows that’s going to help him is gospel music. That’s the only thing he sees.

So when he starts being a star, he’s always trying he remembers that. He remembers the lack of self-esteem and the gospel music. Wherever he goes, “The Man in Black,” that song, the lyrics, (unintelligible) the man in black for the old and hungry.

That was his purpose. That was the one thing that he fought; also kept him closer to his faith. That’s what he thought he was put on Earth to do to spread the word of the gospel.

Tavis: Why the man in black? How did black end up becoming the color for him?

Hilburn: Well it’s funny, (laughter) because it started off you get a record contract at Sun Records, we have to go on the tour; we drive 300 miles a night between cities.

They had white clothes, they’d get them dirty. Ah, they put on black clothes, no one saw the dirt. So he later used it as a symbol for what he stood for, but initially it was just because it was practical.

Tavis: Yeah. His relationships.

This book delves into it in a very deep way. I can’t do justice to it in this conversation, so I’ll just say his relationships with women.

Hilburn: The first marriage was ill-fated. He knew his first wife 17 days before he goes to Germany, for the Air Force, for three years. They write letters back and forth.

In all the letters they’re saying, “I love you, let’s get married.” She’s thinking he’s going to come home every night after dinner and we’re going to have dinner. He’s thinking I’m going to be on the road 300 days a year making money for my family being a country star. Then I’ll come back and my wife will be waiting for me.

So she felt abandoned. She started resenting what he did. So he started looking for someone, and he took that as another blow to his self-esteem, that she doesn’t like what I do. She doesn’t respect it.

So he started looking for women not groupies as much, but women in music, and he found one. The strange thing about the movie “Walk the Line,” it’s really the story June wanted told.

It’s fiction. It’s a fairy tale. If there had been one word in Johnny Cash’s life in the early ’60s, there would never have been a June Carter. He asked the widow of Hank Williams, Billie Jean Horton, to marry him.

She said no. If she’d have said yes, there’d be no June Carter. She says no because she had gone through the drugs with Hank Williams, she didn’t want to go through the drugs with Johnny Cash.

Then he meets June. But why the drugs? That’s the hard thing. Well, he’s an addict. So once he starts on the drugs, you can’t stop. But the reason he did, he was trying to block out that thing his father said.

He was also, Tavis, trying to get over he was abandoning his family. He was leaving his daughters. That was the most painful thing. I have letters that show from 1960, 1980, and 1990.

He’s still asking Roseanne and the other daughters, “Please forgive me, please stop resenting me for what I did. I was trying to survive back then.” But it was a hard it wasn’t really resolved until almost his deathbed.

Tavis: Had he made peace with these parts of his life by the time he passed?

Hilburn: Yeah. The great lessons is every day of his life he’s trying to entertain, but he’s trying to inspire, trying to inspire. You can be redeemed. He had gone through he’d lost his family, he’d lost his religion, he’d lost his legacy in music.

But by the end, the family was back, the love of the daughters, he had his music career and his legacy back, he was off the drugs. He was redeemed himself on his death bed.

That was the message. You can be redeemed. His lesson exemplified everything he was saying, his life.

Tavis: Into the future, is his musical legacy safe? I close with that because you mentioned a moment ago at one point he felt he had lost his musical legacy.

Hilburn: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Is his legacy musically safe?

Hilburn: Oh yeah, yeah, because I think chiefly because of the Rick Rubin that brought him back. It gave him a second chance. If he had flubbed that, if he had not produced great work, the legacy, I think, would have been tarnished.

But he rose he was 70 years old, he couldn’t see anymore, he lost the feeling in his fingers. He had glaucoma, he had diabetes, he was in terrible shape. He still rallied, he still rallied and did those great that video, “Hurt,” video, that’s beautiful stuff.

The great thing in doing a book like this, just like you’re doing a book on Martin Luther King, you tackle a great subject. When you tackle that great subject because the reason we’re attracted to those people I’m not comparing them in any other way is that they are going to be remembered.

There is something important. They had a calling, and they lived, that was their life.

Tavis: And they were imperfect.

Hilburn: Oh of course, of course. That’s the point. If not, if they weren’t imperfect, I don’t know if we could relate to them.

Tavis: Johnny Cash, to Robert Hilburn’s words of a moment ago, is a great subject, but you know what else? Robert Hilburn’s a great writer, and that’s why “The New York Times” names this one of the best books of all of 2013.

It is quite a read. I had Robert on our radio show and was anxious to continue this on television, because the book is just that good. The book is called “Johnny Cash: The Life,” by Robert Hilburn. Robert, congratulations on a great book.

Hilburn: Thanks so much.

Tavis: Good to have you on.

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Last modified: January 23, 2014 at 3:24 pm