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Live from Crawford Family Forum: Robert Hilburn on Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash Inside Folsom Prison

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American country singer and songwriter Johnny Cash (1932 - 2003) walks inside the gates of Folsom Prison, preparing to perform his fourth concert for inmates there, California, 1964.

Monday night at the Crawford Family Forum, we hosted a legend when KPCC's Oscar Garza interviewed longtime LA Times music critic Robert Hilburn about his new biography of Johnny Cash.

In "Johnny Cash: the Life," Hillburn dispels the "fairy tale" of the "Walk the Line" Cash biopic. Cash was much deeper intro drugs than most people realized, and a bigger philanderer as well ... even including June's sister. But the big picture comes through: A great man with demons who truly sought redemption, and found it, in music. His final collaboration with Rick Rubin sold better than his first big hit, the live concert from Folsom Prison.

By the way, Hilburn was the only reporter at the Folsom Concert. Cash's people didn't want any writers, because the musician was so unreliable, and Hilburn had to convince the LA Times to let him go as a freelancer.   

Here's an excerpt of Hilburn's book, as adapted for the LA Times.

Overdoses and near overdoses were so common that everyone in the touring party cited various times and places: Johnny Western mentioned Waterloo, June Carter named Des Moines, Grant alluded to a string of towns. In addition, there were the near-fatal drug-induced accidents, including the time Cash borrowed June's Cadillac and crashed it into a telephone pole, breaking his nose and knocking out four upper front teeth.

To break the tension, Luther Perkins came up with a piece of advice people in Cash's camp would repeat for years: "Let him sleep for 24 hours. If he wakes up, he's alive, if he doesn't, he's dead."

Two years later, in a different part of California, Cash would begin his march to superstardom with a triumphant concert at Folsom State Prison. By 1970, he was the biggest-selling record artist in the country. But he was fighting drugs again in the late 1970s and 1980s, and his sales sank so sharply that he was dropped by Columbia. At the start of the 1990s, Cash believed his record career was over and his musical legacy wasted.

Don't miss another great event at the Crawford Family Forum.


 


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