Johnny Cash’s eternal quest for redemption

Cash was a conflicted soul and Robert Hilburn understands the dichotomies that drove him to live close to the edge

Johnny Cash: The Life
Johnny Cash: The Life
Author: Robert Hilburn
ISBN-13: 978-0297866572
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Guideline Price: Sterling20

Johnny Cash was a conflicted soul, torn between God and the devil, pop and country music, family life and the temptations of the road. He was a lonely figure on an eternal quest for redemption, and this is what made him stand apart from the country'n'western herd. He appealed to the outsider and rebel in everyone, seeming to innately understand the sense of alienation that drove men to do desperate things. Robert Hilburn was there at a defining moment in Cash's career – his concert at Folsom prison in 1968 – and understands the dichotomies that drove Cash to live close to the edge.

Cash was one of American country’s first big crossover stars, his Baptist roots firmly planted in hillbilly Arkansas but his wandering spirit taking him into gospel, folk, pop, rock’n’roll and, in his later years, even alternative rock. His musical career, which began in 1954, when he signed to Sun Records, and ended with his death, in 2003, had more ups and downs than a hayride through the hills.

His personal life, too, was one of turmoil – two of his most famous songs address his relationships with the women in his life. He wrote I Walk t he Line to reassure his first wife, Vivian, that he would remain faithful to her while on tour – that promise was never kept. He wrote Ring of Fire with his on-the-road singing partner and mistress June Carter; according to Hilburn, Vivian kept the radio off so she wouldn't have to hear what she saw as a public confession of her husband's affair.

He owed his early success to the patience of Sam Phillips of Sun, who mentored the young man from Arkansas, giving him time to develop his sound and songwriting. Cash sat in on what became known as the Million Dollar Session, with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, but became jealous that Phillips was devoting more time to Presley, whose career was soaring.


By the start of the 1960s Cash was looking down the barrel of being dropped by Columbia Records; he was also dropping Dexedrines like they were jelly beans, which destroyed his voice and affected his relations with his band members, friends and family. But a series of canny career moves – and a few unexpected turns in fortune – helped to forge his reputation as one of the United States’ greatest musical treasures.

The huge success of Ring of Fire brought him a wider audience, and an appearance at Newport Folk Festival in 1964 earned him the respect of the US's new folk cognoscenti; one of their biggest heroes, Bob Dylan, befriended him.

By the end of the decade Cash was a superstar. He joined forces with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson to form The Highwaymen, recorded The Wanderer with U2 for their Zooropa album, and hooked up with the producer Rick Rubin to make American Recordings .

Cash was a flawed character all right, but his genius was in turning those flaws into his musical and lyrical strengths.

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist