Barely six months after the country singer’s death, a superficial biography by music writer Campbell.
The legendary Johnny Cash (1932–2003) had his first success as one of Sun Records’ genre-smashing rockabilly singers in the mid-’50s, and he was still defying boundaries at the turn of the 21st century with a series of stark, folk-inflected albums produced by hip-hop icon Rick Rubin. Born in rural Arkansas during the depths of the Depression, he grew up in a poor, tightly knit, God-fearing family and always remained true to his country roots and the southern audiences that shared them. But Cash was also a friend of Bob Dylan’s, a quiet opponent of the war in Vietnam, a mentor through his TV show to many ’70s singer-songwriters, and for many years (before second wife June Carter straightened him out) a pill-popping junkie as self-destructive and enraged as any punk rocker. He was a complicated, sophisticated man pursued by personal demons Campbell’s worshipful account does nothing to illuminate. Nor does the author provide any insights into Cash’s music, firmly rooted in country traditions yet always innovative and new, from the Mexican brass on his 1963 hit “Ring of Fire” to his transformation of the Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt” into a searing personal statement in 2002. Campbell seems more interested in image than sound, declaring of the career-rejuvenating American Recordings album, “Johnny Cash had become the sort of hard-bitten desperado that even a fifteen-year-old heavy metal fan could adore.” About the perils of fame he has nothing more interesting to say than, “Johnny Cash knew all about the pressures of stardom. He’d found it all incredibly hard to cope with.” The basic facts of Cash’s life are here for neophyte fans, but this work utterly lacks cultural context or meaningful psychological insights.
An episode of “Behind the Music” would tell you more about Johnny Cash than this lazy rehash.