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'Johnny Cash: The Life' sheds new light on the Man in Black

Promotional headshot portrait of American country singer and songwriter Johnny Cash (1932 - 2003), for his television variety show, 'The Johnny Cash Show,' circa 1969.
Promotional headshot portrait of American country singer and songwriter Johnny Cash (1932 - 2003), for his television variety show, 'The Johnny Cash Show,' circa 1969.
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Johnny Cash wrote more than a thousand songs during the span of his 50-year career. The new, 600-page biography, "Johnny Cash: The Life," by former LA Times music critic Robert Hilburn sheds new light on the Man in Black.

The Wall Street Journal calls it "The most authoritative and revealing portrait to date of the most chronicled figure in country-music history." 

Hilburn first met Cash in 1968, and he was present for the famous live recording of Folsom Prison Blues. He  interviewed the singer many times over the years, but Hilburn says he soon realized how little he actually knew about Johnny Cash when he began researching his book. 

Hilburn joins the show to talk about his memories of Johnny Cash and what he learned while writing the book. 

Interview Highlights:

What did you think was missing from previous bios of Johnny Cash?
"I thought I knew Johnny Cash to begin with. I thought all I was going to have to do was sit down and write the Johnny Cash that I knew, but when I started interviewing people around him, I interviewed probably more than hundred, I found his story was much different than I thought. I was not within 50 miles of knowing Johnny Cash, and it thought me that as much as we think we know celebrities, we don't. We know what they choose to tell us and what may happen in public, but we don't know really know the story. The story of Johnny Cash is much darker than anybody imagined and he is a much more important artist that anyone imagined."

How was the death of his brother a turning point?
"I did not want a happy picture because Johnny Cash was not particularly a happy man much of his life. He was troubled, and that was one of the things, the death of his beloved brother. He gets killed in a tragic accident. A saw in a school workshop cuts his stomach open and it is just agony for Johnny. And that is the beginning of the sadness in his eyes. Now there is many many things that contribute to it."

"It is certainly the drugs, he feels guilty over that. He gets arrested, he abandons his children, he felt guilty about that his whole life and it took decades before his children forgave him for that, the resentment of that. The fact that he was not the Christian man he wanted to be, all those things began multiplying and music became his only salvation, his refugee. That was the shelter from the storm. He would sit down and work weeks and weeks on that music and that is what made him so intense, so powerful and so artful."

There is also this song he writes called "Understand Your Man." This is pretty reminiscent of Bob Dylan's "Don't think twice."
"Bob Dylan loved Johnny Cash. Woody Guthrie was his great influence. But Bod Dylan did not know if he could be like Woody Guthrie in the 1950s and '60s. He saw Johnny Cash, and he is a Guthrie-like person, doing his own music, talking about real things.

"At the same time, Cash looks at Dylan, 'These songs are magnificent.' And John's not above stealing melodies. He wrote mostly words, he was a wordsman. He takes Dylan's message, but this message is directed at his first wife: Understand your man. At the end of the song, he is leaving. It is goodbye. Can you imagine, Vivian in Memphis when John first starts making records has the radio on all the time, trying to listen to Johnny Cash. By the time this record comes out, she is in California, she does not put the radio on at all. She does want to hear this song."

One of other great visions that Rick Rubin had was to bring songs that other people had written to Johnny Cash, including the song "Hurt" by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. There is a great backstory to which you talk about in this book."
"John's health was deteriorating. They both thought he had one album left to make and Rick wanted to find the ultimate song that would be his crowning achievement. He finds "Hurt," which is about heroin addiction. John changes it to be a song about false values and how they all go away in the end.

"So they make the record, they film a video of it, and in the video one of the most haunting scenes, John looks like he is almost dying in the video. His wife June Carter comes down and looks at him and she looks so sad and you think when you watched that video that she is thinking, 'What am I going to do without John?'

"What really happened, and I found this out in the research, the night before she had talked to a doctor. She had a terrible heart valve. She thought she was going to die because she was going to the hospital. So when she is looking at him she is really thinking, 'What is he going to do without me?' It is the most touching thing imaginable."

Event: Book discussion with "Johnny Cash: The Life" author Robert Hilburn at the Grammy Museum