Today Henry Carrigan talks to me (Eric Banister) about my new book Johnny Cash FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Man in Black:
Eric Banister: There’s kind of a two-fold answer for that one. First, the opportunity to write a book in the FAQ series presented itself. The first artist I thought of was Cash. So the honest answer is that the timing was mostly serendipitous. But that’s not to say I wasn’t passionate about the subject matter. You have to be passionate, in at least some way, about any subject you dive deep enough into to write a book.
MT: How long did it take you to write the book?
EB: I wrote the book in a year. The advantage I had that enabled me to write it so quickly was that I’ve been a Cash fan since grade school. I had already read nearly everything that had been released on Cash. I had collected articles and info on him for years. I had or had heard nearly everything he had released. That gave me an advantage in getting the book turned around quickly.
MT: Your book arrives just about one year after Robert Hilburn’s monumental biography, Johnny Cash: The Life. What distinguishes your book from his?
EB: They are really completely different books. In fact I feel like Johnny Cash FAQ is an excellent companion to Robert’s book. The Life, while it talks a little about the music, focuses on Cash’s personal life (sometimes a little too much, but that’s my opinion) and digs in to the personal relationships that he had throughout his life. There’s a good amount of time spent on his romantic relationships and whom he may or may not have slept with. That’s all well and good, and I don’t mean to take anything away from the book because I did enjoy it, but in the grand scheme of Cash’s legacy, it’s not what will be remembered.
What will be remembered is the music. Johnny Cash will always be remembered as one of the greatest artists of all time, and that’s because of the music. My whole purpose was to look at Cash’s catalog, examine the songs, the song choices, the performances, and put them into a historical context to properly examine them. I spent a lot of time looking at contemporaneous reviews of his albums as they were coming out to see what writers were saying in the moment rather than through the lens of nostalgia.
MT: What three new things (and I’m sure there are more than three) did you learn about Cash while you were writing this book?
EB: Well let me see if I can narrow this down. Where I found a lot of fascination was in his work in the 1970s, which are often overlooked, so I’ll focus there. First, I found it very interesting how he developed as an artist throughout those years. He wrote fewer songs than he did prior to that, but he put together the House of Cash publishing company so that he could not only keep up with the best new songwriters, but also help their careers in some way. Having those songwriters around also fed his own creativity, which is reflected in several of that periods albums.
The second thing was that, while I knew Cash was a very spiritual person, it was interesting to learn how much he leaned on Gospel music throughout his career, particularly when he was recording other projects that he might not have had his whole heart in, like John R. Cash.
Lastly, I found it infinitely fascinating the depth of myths surrounding him and how much both he and his fans were, and still are, willing to go along with them. A quick example that I didn’t get to go into in the book was his relationship with the Grand Ole Opry. The story goes that he was kicked off the Opry for smashing out the footlights. But in every account of it, only one, Marshall Grant, pinpoints a timeframe! So I got with Opry historian Byron Faye and we looked at the appearances during that time and none of them lined up. So why does it keep getting retold? Well, I think in the beginning, it put him in the same outlaw image that was being crafted for Hank Williams. There were articles even early in Cash’s career that tried to draw parallels. It was also a good story for illustrating a division in what was perceived as bastion of traditional country and what people like to think Cash stood for.
MT: Why does Cash continue to command such persistent attention from music historians?
EB: I think it is because he is such a complex figure. It’s easy to look at him and see only one facet, but there are so many layers. Sometimes those layers seem to contradict themselves, but that’s something every person deals with. But with Cash, some of those contradictions were created by his own self-mythologizing, which adds to his complexity.
Speaking strictly musically, Cash was able to create an instantly identifiable sound that he was able to maintain for a large portion of his career. Even when he varied it, it remained recognizable.
Those two things—the music and the myths—combine to draw people in. The fact that he kept creating right up until his death adds to his mystique as an artist. He’s one of the few artists who have created in the public eye from his early twenties to his death. A career of that span has a lot to look into.
MT: After writing this book, in what ways did your view of Cash change?
EB: I wouldn’t say change, but definitely my opinion of him as a creative artist deepened. No matter what was going on in his life, he continued to create. He didn’t limit himself in creative expression, either. He was a songwriter, a singer, an actor. He dabbled in comedy, though he was often the straight man. His second television show, which consisted of six weekly episodes, was heavy on comedy and featured June, Steve Martin, and Jim Varney. Cash was the one who got to set up many of the jokes and you could tell he was having a great time.
MT: Do you have a favorite Cash song? Album?
EB: My favorite song is still the first Cash song I ever heard, “I Walk The Line.” Favorite album is a little tougher. I’d say that the two albums I’ve returned to the most are Any Old Wind That Blows and Gone Girl. Both of them show Cash stretching a little, but not so much that he sounds uncomfortable.
MT: What would you like readers to take away from your book?
EB: I hope readers will take away a better appreciation of Cash’s career beyond the Sun years, the prison records, and the American years. I hope they’ll use the books as a launching pad to discover Cash tunes and albums that they haven’t heard before. There is so much there that is great, but criminally overlooked.
MT: What’s next for you?
EB: I’m currently writing my third book. It’s part of another series, the Counting Down series by Rowman & Littlefield. I’ve taken on the task of writing about the 100 best songs in Southern Rock. After that, I’ve got a few other books ideas percolating.
Beyond books, I’ll keep looking for ways to expand Music Tomes.
MT: What are some of your favorite music tomes?
EB: I read so many music related books a year, both for research and for Music Tomes, so this is hard to narrow down. I’ll just toss out a few from the last couple of years that I really enjoyed. Producing Country: The Inside Story of the Great Recordings by Michael Jarrett shows a different perspective on the creation of country music through the years. That probably my favorite book of the year so far. I’m looking forward to Barry Mazor’s book, Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music.
If you’re new to digging in to music related books, I love everything from Peter Guralnick and Charles K. Wolfe, and recommend anything by them. Also, if you’re a fan of music writing, there needs to be a copy of David Cantwell’s Merle Haggard: The Running Kind on your shelf. Incredibly insightful and well written. As David’s writing always has, this book really pushed me when looking at the vast work of Cash.