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Johnny Cash: The Life

Johnny Cash: The Life

by Robert Hilburn
Johnny Cash: The Life

Johnny Cash: The Life

by Robert Hilburn


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The national bestseller celebrated as "the ultimate Johnny Cash biography . . . Rock writer great Robert Hilburn goes deep." — Rolling Stone

In this, the definitive biography of an American legend, Robert Hilburn conveys the unvarnished truth about a musical superstar. Johnny Cash's extraordinary career stretched from his days at Sun Records with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis to the remarkable creative last hurrah, at age 69, that resulted in the brave, moving "Hurt" video.

As music critic for the Los Angeles Times, Hilburn knew Cash throughout his life: he was the only music journalist at the legendary Folsom Prison concert in 1968, and he interviewed both Cash and his wife June Carter just months before their deaths. Drawing upon a trove of never-before-seen material from the singer's inner circle, Hilburn creates an utterly compelling, deeply human portrait of a towering figure in country music, a seminal influence in rock, and an icon of American popular culture. Hilburn's reporting shows the astonishing highs and deep lows that marked the journey of a man of great faith and humbling addiction who throughout his life strove to use his music to lift people's spirits.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316194747
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 11/04/2014
Pages: 688
Sales rank: 162,922
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Robert Hilburn was the chief music critic and pop music editor for the Los Angeles Times for more than three decades. The author of the bestselling memoir Cornflakes with John Lennon, Hilburn has reported extensively on most of pop music's legends, including Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Johnny Cash.

Read an Excerpt

Johnny Cash

The Life

By Robert Hilburn

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2013 Robert Hilburn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-19475-4


Dyess and the Dream


The two-and-a-half-mile walk from the Cash family's five-room, federally assisted farmhouse in rural Dyess, Arkansas, to the town center was just long enough for young J.R. to work up a head full of dreams. For years, the third son of Ray and Carrie Cash walked the narrow gravel road with his schoolboy pals, all of them fantasizing about being cowboy movie stars like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. But J.R. most enjoyed walking the road alone, especially at night, when the darkness felt like a shield against the rest of the world, leaving him free to pursue a dream that was far more important than he wanted to admit.

On those nights, J.R. would frequently sing to himself, he later told friends when reminiscing about his childhood days, partially to calm his nerves when he heard the rustling of cottonmouth snakes in the grass or the howl of prowling panthers in the woods a few hundred yards away. Years later, some of J.R.'s old chums and even his younger sister Joanne chuckled at the idea of panthers in the woods. Snakes, yes—maybe even an occasional bobcat—but no one knew anything about panthers. "He had a real vivid imagination," says A. J. Henson, who sometimes walked that gravel road with his friend. Even Cash himself often admitted that he never let facts interfere with a good story. But as Joanne put it, there's no doubting one thing about the Dyess years: J.R. loved to sing.

There was something about music that was even more magical to him than movies, a fascination that came naturally. His family, especially his mother, had always turned to songs for comfort and inspiration. Soon after he started grade school, J.R. knew he wanted to be a singer on the radio, and he began to think of that gravel road at night as his own secret stage. When he was feeling especially good, he'd stop after a song, look up at the Arkansas moon, and take a bow.

The first song J.R. remembered hearing was the old hymn "I Am Bound for the Promised Land." He was just three years old, but he joined the chorus—Oh who will come and go with me? / I am bound for the promised land—as his mother sang during the 250-mile journey in a flatbed truck that took the family and its little bit of furniture across Arkansas. They had left his birthplace of Kingsland in the hill country of the south-central part of the state to travel to the fertile flat black delta land of Dyess in the northeast corner. Thanks to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal program, they were about to claim what she told them would be their own promised land on earth.

But for most of the two-day trip in March of 1935, J.R. and his older brothers, Roy (born 1921) and Jack (1929), huddled together under a tarpaulin in the bed of the truck, trying to protect themselves from the punishing cold and rain. The ride along muddy roads was all the more frightening because the vehicle frequently hit potholes with such force that the boys feared the wheels might be knocked loose at any moment. Their mother tried to calm them and her two daughters, Reba (1934) and Louise (1923), with music and the assurance that God was watching over the family.

The story of Dyess had its roots in the Great Depression, when most of the farmers in the state, including J.R.'s father, struggled to survive. As the price of a five-hundred-pound bale of cotton dropped from $125 in 1928 to $35 in 1932, there was panic among farmers over how to provide for their families. President Roosevelt, according to the popular version of a complicated bureaucratic backstory, came to the rescue with a plan to give distraught workers the chance of a more secure future. Through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, funds were allocated to build small cooperative communities around the country to provide some deserving farmers with homes, twenty acres of land, and a small annual stipend for food and clothing. The social experiment also called for new buildings to house support services, including a cotton gin, general store, restaurant, school, hospital, post office, and gas station.

Officially titled Colonization Project No. 1, Dyess was one of the first cooperatives. In May 1934, more than 1,300 workers taken from Arkansas's welfare rolls had started building houses and roads on a sixteen-thousand-acre spread of land. At the same time, the government began taking applications for Dyess farmers. Only Caucasians were eligible. This wasn't welfare, the applicants were told. The town's new arrivals had to work the land and then use money from the crops, chiefly cotton, to repay the government the cost of the housing, the property, and the stipend before they could receive the deed to the property. When Ray Cash heard about the Dyess project on the radio, he decided in an instant to apply.

Thousands of destitute men lined up at government offices throughout the state to apply for only five hundred homesteads. Ray Cash wasn't intimidated. He presented himself as just the kind of hardworking, industrious family man and fiercely patriotic American that he felt the government administrators were seeking. His paternal roots in North America dated back to 1667, when one of his ancestors, William Cash, came across the Atlantic from Scotland on the ship Good Intent and settled in Essex County, Massachusetts. William's descendants then migrated to Virginia in the early 1700s and on to Georgia, where Ray Cash's grandfather Reuben Cash was born.

After Reuben's plantation was destroyed by General William T. Sherman's troops during the Civil War, the former Confederate soldier moved west to Arkansas in 1866. Ray's father, William Henry Cash, was six. He grew up to be a farmer and a Baptist preacher, a circuit rider who served four widely separated counties. Ray, one of twelve children, was born in 1897.

In the interview process for the Dyess land, Ray stressed not only his military service (he had served in France briefly during World War I), but also how hard he had worked to support his family after farming became unprofitable. He'd pursued odd jobs, sometimes walking miles to cut wood at a sawmill or hopping a freight train to Charleston, Mississippi, to help dismantle a chemical plant. Still, there were no guarantees that he would be chosen, and he was desperate to secure some kind of permanent work. After finishing the rigorous interview, he suffered a week of sleepless nights before getting the good news. Ray Cash was one of just five applicants from all of Cleveland County to be accepted for the program.

Following the grueling truck ride from Kingsland, the Cashes arrived at their new home in Dyess, carried in the colony records as house number 226 on Road 3. Years later, photos of early Dyess houses make the residences look primitive and bare-boned, bringing to mind Walker Evans's stark photos of American poverty during the Great Depression. Indeed, the days of rainfall had left the mud so deep and thick on the property that Ray had to leave the truck a hundred yards away from the house and carry J.R. the rest of the way. Still, the new home looked like a mansion to the Cashes. It had been painted white with green trim, and there were glass panes instead of burlap sacks in the windows. The family of seven walked around the house and the barn, admiring them the way farmers might examine a prize cow.

Yet the excitement soon wore off as Ray and his oldest son, Roy, started the arduous work of clearing land. In Johnny Cash: The Autobiography in 1997, Cash described the tortured colony land as a "jungle—I mean real jungle. Cottonwood and ash and hickory as well as scrub oak and cypress, the trees and vines and bushes tangled up so thick in places that you couldn't get through, some of it underwater."

According to Cash, his father and brother attacked the land from dawn to nightfall, six days a week, "starting on the highest ground and working their way downward foot by foot, cutting with saws and axes and Kaiser blades—long- handled machetes—and then dynamiting and burning out the stumps." The ordeal was so formidable that by the start of planting season that first spring, the Cashes had been able to clear only about three of the twenty acres. Dozens of new Dyess residents gave up and moved on, grumbling that the whole program was a sham. There were inevitable whispers about political corruption—and even outsiders began asking questions. Though funds for the colony came from the federal government, the colony owed its existence to a young landowner and county election commissioner in Arkansas more than it did to anyone in Washington, D.C. It was this man that the colony would eventually be named for: William Reynolds Dyess.

Moved by the impact of the Depression on the state's farmers, Dyess had begun campaigning in the early 1930s for a government program to aid farmers and their families. After hearing about the FERA program, W. R. Dyess contacted Harry Hopkins, the program's director in Washington, and came away with more than $3 million. At the same time, Dyess was named FERA representative for Arkansas. He then chose an area about twenty miles from his hometown of Osceola to build the colony. The location and subsequent purchase raised eyebrows. When word got out in 1934 that Dyess was thinking of running for governor or possibly U.S. senator, would-be opponents started asking ticklish questions about the colony.

The acreage in question was part of a three-county stretch in Arkansas known as the "sunken lands"—territory redesigned by a series of earthquakes in 1811 and 1812. The shifts in the ground caused by the quakes, centered just thirty miles northeast of the future site of Dyess, caused various stretches of land to sink up to fifty feet in places. Water rushed in, turning much of the area into swampland overrun with tangled vegetation and the mushy soil that locals referred to as "gumbo."

Why, Dyess's detractors wanted to know, did the program director pick this particular land—land that no farmer in his right mind would have chosen? Was the purchase a favor for Lee Wilson, a family friend who owned the sodden acreage? Backers of the project countered that there was desperation in the air in Arkansas in the 1930s and the colony property was dirt cheap. The state would really have been under fire, they maintained, if Dyess had used federal funds to buy top-grade farmland. By buying property that, in essence, no one else wanted, he made sure that the colony got more land for its money. That was the view ultimately accepted by most Dyess residents, who dismissed the small group of dissenters in the colony as a "radical" or "troublemaking" fringe.

Still, there was enough of a stir that, in 1934, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration sent three men to investigate the complaints against W. R. Dyess. One member of the team did accuse Dyess of indiscretion in spending some of the money to improve roads on noncolony property that he and Wilson owned. Otherwise, the trio found no evidence of criminal acts. In Washington, Harry Hopkins made no attempt to remove or penalize Dyess. Additional complaints surfaced later about check fraud and payroll irregularities, but Dyess's supporters dismissed them as smears by political opponents, and formal investigations revealed no serious problems.

On January 24, 1936, just months before the formal incorporation of the colony, the issue of W. R. Dyess became history; the man behind the dream was killed in a plane crash. But the residents of the new colony had always thought of President Roosevelt—not their neighbor—as their savior. FDR's comforting voice on the radio and his New Deal policies were giving millions of people hope. The president was beloved by the people of Dyess, and he took on saintly qualities to young J.R. Roosevelt never visited the colony, but his wife, Eleanor, was present on June 9, 1936, for the dedication of the new administration building.

Mrs. Roosevelt, who had vigorously encouraged Harry Hopkins's work in providing emergency relief around the country, arrived with a car and driver, accompanied by four state troopers on motorcycles. After delivering a short speech from the porch of the two-story building, she spent hours shaking hands with all of the 2,500 or so folks who turned out, including J.R. At least that's the way he remembered it. His boyhood friend J. E. Huff later maintained that Mrs. Roosevelt patted them both on the head. Either way, J.R. talked his mother and father into staying in the town center so he could watch through the Dyess Café window as she ate dinner.

The fact that the government was responsible for giving his family and neighbors a second chance left the youngster with a deep patriotism and a profound respect for the American presidency.


J.R. wasn't expected to pick cotton until he was six, but he started carrying water to the rest of the family in the fields by his fourth birthday, and he'd often linger just to sing gospel songs with them. He'd also sit at his mother's feet at night in the family living room as she played the same songs on an acoustic guitar or the family's $37 upright piano. The tunes all came from an old Baptist hymn book, and they became ingrained in him; J.R. would sing at least one, often "I'll Fly Away" or "Softly and Tenderly," to himself almost every day for much of his life. In future years when overwhelmed by drugs and other pressures, he would often isolate himself and turn to music as a refuge; the purity of music was a place of comfort and affirmation.

Carrie Cash loved gospel music and listened to it on the battery-powered Sears radio that Ray bought for the family, a luxury in their struggling farm community. J.R. sat with his mother and listened to the gospel singers, but he was also drawn to the country music singers his brother Roy favored. As he sat by the radio, J.R. was fascinated to see how Roy listened to the country singers with the same devotion that his mother showed toward her gospel singers. Though it took him years to put it into words, he found something warmly satisfying in the way music brought people together and lifted their spirits. Each moment with the radio was especially valued because playing time was limited; it was expensive to get the battery charged.

J.R. soon followed the singers he heard on the radio the way other boys in Dyess would later collect baseball cards; he was enthralled by them, learning their names and individual vocal styles, and he had an uncanny memory for lyrics. He'd often challenge Roy to see who knew the most words to various country hits of the day, and J.R. invariably won. He also came to know where the country music stations were on the dial—whether it was WLW in Cincinnati or a border station in Mexico, or WSM in Nashville—and when his favorite shows aired so he could make the most of his precious listening minutes.

The youngster didn't just listen to country and gospel, however. Some stations played country and pop, and the music-hungry boy looked forward to hearing anything by Bing Crosby or, later, the early rhythm and blues of the Ink Spots. As he got older, J.R. would expand his listening habits to include the fifteen- minute mystery dramas, such as I Love a Mystery and Inner Sanctum. He also followed comedy and quiz shows such as the Jack Benny show and Truth or Consequences. But his first loves remained country and gospel music.

As it happened, the first country singer J.R. recalled hearing was Jimmie Rodgers, who was known to millions of fans in the South and Southwest in the late 1920s and early 1930s as the "Singing Brakeman," because he had worked on and frequently sang about the railroads. Thanks to an appealing bluesy-country approach and songs about a wanderlust lifestyle that stirred the imagination of his mostly rural audience, Rodgers was the first country music superstar. The first Rodgers song J.R. heard was "Hobo Bill's Last Ride," a melancholy tale of a lonely man dying in a boxcar on a freezing night far away from home. J.R. was about five, and the record reminded him of his own anxious journey from Kingsland as well as the times he'd watched his father hop off a freight when returning from one of his job hunts.

Excerpted from Johnny Cash by Robert Hilburn. Copyright © 2013 Robert Hilburn. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Patti Smith

Robert Hilburn displays a deeply felt affinity with his subject, illuminating Johnny Cash as the moral compass of country music. — Patti Smith

Keith Richards

I listened to that stark unrelenting country as a kid. He was a hero of mine. I met him, finally, in a john at the Waldorf Astoria. He was taking a pee and I broke out into 'Loading Coal.' We both zipped up and sung the final chorus together. One of my most cherished moments. You don't get much closer than that. Hilburn has written a brilliant story of an even more brilliant song writer, warts and all. --Keith Richards


Johnny Cash was a man both extraordinary and ordinary. Every man could relate to him, no man could be him, and only one man could get inside his head - like Robert Hilburn. — Bono

Charles Cross

With straightforward prose, and through years of meticulous research, Robert Hilburn unravels the sometimes dark and magical life of one of music's greatest legends. Oftentimes this is a chronicle of pain, whether Hilburn is detailing Cash's early loss of his beloved brother, or the anguish he talked to Rick Rubin about feeling upon the death of wife June, but Hilburn gives much insight into what drove Cash's work. This is a harrowing story of addiction, musical genius, and enduring faith that goes far deeper than any film biopic ever will. In the end, Hilburn has achieved what is most certainly the definitive Johnny Cash biography. — Charles R. Cross, author of Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain

Kris Kristofferson

Johnny Cash and Robert Hilburn are two of the true blessings of my life. Both the best at what they do and each a gifted artist. It's a killer combination. — Kris Kristofferson

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