The author of this definitive tome is a long time chronicler of all things country. He authored books on Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold. But his focus has been on Johnny Cash. He authored Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece. He is also the editor of Ring of Fire; The Johnny Cash Reader. This time around the author digs deep and comes up with gold, 18 chapters over 290 pages. He also includes a Notes section, an Index section and a Bibliography. No stone is left unturned.
He begins his narrative in 1932 but the sentinel event for young Johnny (J.R.) Cash was the death of his brother Jack In 1944. Jack was repairing tents and was trying to cut a board on a big Dewalt bale arm saw. Someone had taken the guard off and put an oversized blade on it and it hit the wood and the blade came right at him. The blade sliced through Jack’s stomach and abdomen. It was reported that Jack died slowly. It was a tragic death made more tragic when J.R.’s father said, “Too bad it wasn’t you instead of Jack.”
Perhaps it was this sense of not belonging that led Cash into the armed services and the use of alcohol and recreational drugs. According to the author, Cash became a stoned addict for most of his life. It was in the service that Cash refined his musical skills and developed his expressive baritone.
Streissguth captures the yearning in Cash’s early forays into music with his good friends Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant. By 1949 Dewey Phillips was broadcasting at WDIA rhythm and blues shows. It aired black oriented public affairs programs, black music and black voices. In the 20’s and 30’s he marketed cut-rate blues and jazz records to black buyers.
It was Sam Phillips; a 26-year-old white man from Florence Alabama began working for WREC. He discovered that different classes and races could make music together. SUN Records was established in 1952, it was the early seedlings of rock & roll - white artists such as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash made a big wave, more of a typhoon of musical greatness, though it is quite evident that the legacy of BB King, Bobby Bland and Ike Turner made it all possible.
By 1955 Cash & the TennesseeTwo was touring with a roster of SUN Records artists including Elvis Presley. By 1956 Cash was on his way with hits like Get Rhythm, I Walk the Line, and Folsom Prison Blues (early version). Cash dated his drug use to 1958 though may of his colleagues disputed this, it was much earlier and it was speed, benzos. It became a lifelong habit with the most intense years were from 1958 to 1967, though he was never free from drugs for the rest of his life. In 1958, Cash-composed songs that sold more than six million records.
In 1960 Cash added a drummer to fill out the sound. He was in high gear, touring and making regular television appearances on the Jackie Gleason Show, Jimmy Dean Show, The Country Music Jubilee and American Bandstand. He was hot.
Cash was married for several years to Vivian Liberto. They had four daughters and a rocky marriage. Johnny was in the first phase of his incredible journey to fame and he was often absent. Vivian once revealed that Johnny left home for over a year and she had no idea of his whereabouts. One year he came home in January loaded down with Christmas gifts for his daughters. It was a dark holiday.
Some of the highlights in the life of Johnny Cash include:
• There are songs recorded by Cash that documented a fading part of American life. It was his way of promoting American Folk Music; My Grandfather’s Clock; Don’t Take Your Guns to Town, Cool Water and the incredible Five Feet High and Rising.
• In 1961, Saul Holli a promoter from London Ontario and Johnny’s manager was instrumental in hiring June Carter for the Johnny Cash Show. This merger of souls lasted 42 years. June and Johnny proved inseparable, a lifetime of love. In 1964 Cash and Bob Dylan met and became lifelong friends. Cash recorded several of his songs including It Ain’t Me Babe and Mama You’ve Been on My Mind. The Johnny Cash Show debuted in 1969. It was a counter-culture take on musical forms from folk and jazz to rock and country. Besides Dylan (doing songs from Nashville Skyline), Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot graced the stage of The Johnny Cash Show.
• The 1968 Folsom Prison Concert proved to be one of the highlights in Cash’s illustrious career. He opened with “Hi, I’m Johnny Cash” which became his pat introduction for the rest of his performing career. The set list included Folsom Prison Blues, Dark as a Dungeon, Orange Blossom Special, Cocaine Blues, The Long Black Veil, Green, Green Grass of Home, Greystone Chapel and Jackson.
• Rick Rubin recorded several songs for Rick Rubin’s American Recordings. The video of Hurt was a masterpiece and considered to be Johnny Cash’s epitaph.
The Final Chapter of the Book is the Gloaming and it details the love and suffering this famous couple endured. It details the decline and fall of one of our most celebrated unions, a love that endured addiction, pain and loneliness. It is a masterful rendering by Streissguth in his powerful yet sensitive narrative style
The true love of Johnny Cash’s life was June Carter. They were married on March 1st, 1968. They lived and toured together for 35 years until June’s Death in May 2003, Cash died four months later.
Michael Streissguth has fashioned a fascinating chronicle of an American Icon. The warts are revealed right beside the triumphs of love, forgiveness and family.
Johnny Cash: The Biography can be found at Amazon.com or eBay.com or Barnes & Noble. It is worth the time.