A profusely illustrated volume documents a celebrated performer’s struggles and hard-won triumphs.
Veteran music journalist Light (What Happened Miss Simone?: A Biography, 2016, etc.) offers an admiring yet cleareyed biography of Johnny Cash (1932-2003), a composer, singer, and guitar player who crossed many genres. Though associated mainly with country, in 1992, when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cash acknowledged a wide range of influences, including Alan Lomax’s field recordings of hill country music, Hank Williams, and gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Cash’s cultural contributions went beyond music; he was also an actor, writer (of two autobiographies and a novel), and social and political activist. “You could guide your ship by him,” his friend Bob Dylan said. “Listen to him and he always brings you to your senses.” Cash made his first major concert appearance in 1955, opening for Elvis Presley in Memphis; “Cash don’t have to move a muscle, he just sings and stands there,” Presley remarked. “The whole world will know Johnny Cash.” His early recordings—“Folsom Prison” and “I Walk the Line”—were immediate hits, topping country and pop charts. But neither his career nor his personal life was smooth. Married with four children, he fell in love with singer June Carter and desperately wanted his Catholic wife to agree to a divorce. In the 1960s, he descended into alcoholism and drugs, “gobbling amphetamines at a ferocious pace.” During a seven-year period, he found himself in jail seven times for drug-related offenses. Throughout the book, Light interrupts the chronology of Cash’s life with “spotlights,” concise essays on four themes: musical influences, social concerns, marriage to June (complex, tense, and often volatile), and religion (he was a good friend of Billy Graham). The author draws on Cash’s autobiographies, music history and criticism, interviews, and writings by Cash’s family to produce an intimate and engaging portrait. By far the greatest strength of the book, though, are the illustrations: memorabilia from family archives and abundant photographs that capture Cash’s undeniable charisma.
A treat for the Man in Black’s many fans.