December 23, 2013


Stephen Deusner on Johnny Cash: The Life : The Man in Black in Shades of Gray (Stephen Deusner, December 23rd, 2013, LA Review of Books)

Both Folsom and The Holy Land were passion projects for Cash, and both show the extremes of his persona. Here was a man who could ingest handfuls of pills and bed women who were not his wife (June Carter only one among several), yet could still sing a gospel song with utmost conviction. He yearned for salvation out of both personal spiritual need and his perceived social responsibility as a country musician, yet he continued for decades to wallow in sin. There was significance to his struggle, which allowed fans to identify personally with him as a flawed human being and prevented him from preaching down to his audience. Even as he fought mightily and often futilely against temptation, he came to represent larger American ideals, most characteristically musical authenticity, social empathy, and spiritual striving. These seemingly oppositional urges toward damnation and salvation continue to animate the Cash legend even a decade after his death, bisecting him neatly into two figures. The man himself was a deeply fallible human being, while the Man in Black has grown into an American tall tale similar to Paul Bunyan or John Henry.

Anyone attempting to discuss Cash in any context -- whether it's a critical examination of his catalog or a summation of his life -- must address these two roles and their inherent contradictions. Hilburn is less interested in the mythology than in the man who constructed it, and Johnny Cash is all the more fascinating, refreshing, and revelatory for that approach. The arc of Cash's life is so long and varied, opening in rural Arkansas before traversing the globe many times and ranging from upstart musician on Sun Records to aging icon on American Recordings. It's a rich story full of triumphs and failures, fadeouts and comebacks, yet it can be intimidating in both its length and its familiarity. Somehow Hilburn manages to fit the story into 700 pages without sacrificing detail, nuance, or character. Even more impressive is his ability to make these events new and revealing even after so many books and films and documentaries about the subject. Cash may be one of the most studied figures in American music, but Johnny Cash still finds new material and new approaches. [...]

Folsom may have revitalized Cash commercially, but it was not quite a new beginning for the artist. Rather, with its feisty renditions of old material, it closed out the first of several long, uncertain phases in his career. Less popular and certainly less well regarded, The Holy Land may mark a true turning point. At the very least it proved equally pivotal, as it set in place the concerns that would guide Cash throughout much of the 1970s -- a decade defined by his relentless spiritual questing and a renewed emphasis on gospel music. Cash insisted on playing hymns when he auditioned for Sun Records, until Sam Phillips persuaded him to try his hand with secular material. Years later, Cash would maintain that one of his earliest Sun hits, "I Walk the Line," was less about his new wife than about his God (yet Hilburn strikes a note of subtle skepticism).

Nevertheless, some of Cash's best singles worked as both secular and spiritual ponderings. Hilburn rightly suggests that his three signature tunes in 1969 and 1970, when Cash was reaching millions via his variety show on ABC, smuggled Christian ideas onto the radio via pop hits. In fact, "What Is Truth?" and especially "The Man in Black" can be read as extensions of his quest for salvation, viewing such topical concerns as the Vietnam War and prisoners' rights through the lens of Christian faith. Cash was, as Hilburn notes, "a man struggling to understand the times," and few other artists were quite so well positioned to speak across the various political and social divides that defined America at this point in history. Here was a man who could release a counterculturally sympathetic inquisition like "What Is Truth?" with its verse devoted to questioning the war, and follow it up with a performance at Nixon's White House.

It was, of course, impossible for Cash to walk such a fine line in American culture for very long, and eventually his endorsement of Nixon, his appearances with evangelist Billy Graham, and his emphasis on hymns over hits alienated his younger fans. Meanwhile, well outside the city limits, a new generation of musicians including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Jerry Jeff Walker rode the wave of outlaw country that displaced Cash on the charts, relegating him to Nashville's old guard: unhip, out of touch, irrelevant. Hilburn notes the irony that Cash had been rendered obsolete by the very movement he inspired.

Posted by at December 23, 2013 5:35 PM

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