Veteran music writer Hilburn (Cornflakes with John Lennon, 2009) masterfully separates fiction from fact in an exhaustive, but never exhausting, biography of the legendary musician.
Even as a child, Johnny Cash (1932–2003) knew he wanted to write songs and perform them in front of large audiences, but he had no realistic plan to accomplish those goals. After high school, he joined the Air Force, a choice that taught him a great deal about life outside Arkansas but did not seem to bring him closer to his musical goals. He met Vivian Liberto while still in the military. They eventually married and had four daughters amid numerous struggles with Cash's marital infidelities and amphetamine addiction. As for the professional dream, Cash reached fulfillment only due to his gutsy foray into Memphis, where record-company impresario Sam Phillips eventually succumbed to the novice's entreaties. Hilburn expertly navigates the ups and downs of Cash's music career before, during and after stardom; the divorce from Vivian and eventual marriage to June Carter; his debilitating addiction to pills; the TV and movie appearances that increased Cash's cultural presence; the slide into apparent professional has-been status; and the unlikely pairing with music producer Rick Rubin after the fall that not only revived Cash's fame, but took his singing in amazing new directions. Hilburn packs his mostly chronological narrative with cameos by famous artists who admired Cash, including Carl Perkins, Waylon Jennings, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and even some heavy-metal and rap musicians. As the longtime music critic for the Los Angeles Times, Hilburn followed Cash's career vigorously and interviewed him multiple times before his death.
The personal knowledge aided by extensive archival research and always compelling, accessible writing make this an instant-classic music biography with something to offer all generations of listeners.