Robert Hilburn has been a music critic since the late 1960s and interviewed the cream of the crop. His new book grew out of those beginnings as a music critic and the subject of his first big story – Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash: The Life is the definitive book on the life and music of Cash. Henry Carrigan talked to Hilburn for Music Tomes:
Robert Hilburn: Though I interviewed John several times between 1968 and 2002, I didn’t plan on writing a biography until I saw the movie, Walk the Line, and read some of the books that were rushed out following his death. I didn’t think any of these works conveyed John’s importance as an artist or the depth of his personal life. I asked his long-time manager, Lou Robin, how much of the Johnny Cash story remains to be told and he said, “Eighty per cent.” That was in 2009. I probably spent about 18 months researching the book and another 18 months writing it. I wanted it to be a serious work, something that would be truly definitive and tell someone 50 years from now who Johnny Cash was and why he was such a major figure in pop culture—and I think people will still be caring about him in 50 years.
MT: When was the last time you had a chance to talk with Cash, and about what did you talk?
RH: The last time I saw John and June was at the cabin in Virginia where June was raised. It was September of 2002, just before John did the “Hurt” video. He was very frail; hardly able to speak more than a few words without taking a rest, but he was still excited about his music. He was looking forward to doing several more albums, especially one featuring black gospel music. We sat up in the cabin’s living room after June went to bed and he talked in detail about a lot of the joys and regrets in his life. It was very personal and it was invaluable—having his perspective on various key events in his life.
MT: You were the only music journalist at Cash’s 1968 Folsom Prison concert. Can you tell us a little bit about your own experience of that day as well as what you recall of Cash at that point in his career?
RH: I was just beginning my career as a music writer; it was the first big story I did for the Los Angeles Times and I was thrilled to be there. I had no idea the concert would be as important as it was, but I felt it was a great theme—the man who wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” singing “Folsom Prison Blues” for convicts at Folsom Prison. John was very nervous; he sensed this could be an important breakthrough in his career and he also wanted very much to connect with the prisoners—to make them feel he cared about them. That was his chief goal with his music, throughout his career, trying to lift people’s spirits. He especially reached out to underdogs in society, trying to convince people that no matter how much they had stumbled or sinned they could be redeemed.
MT: Tell us some of the ways that Cash, as you say in the book, kept “fighting for his vision” of music.
RH: Well, record companies want to sell records so they wanted hits for the jukebox—and most artists, especially country artists in the 1950s and 1960s, wanted the same thing. But John was different. Sure, he wanted to sell records, but mostly he wanted his music to be meaningful in the way I described above. He wanted to inspire people and comfort them and reassure them. He went through a hellish amount of trouble in his life and yet he triumphed and he wanted his audience to see that they, too, could overcome their problems.
MT: You write that “no one-not even Sam Phillips—had understood the depth and range of Cash’s artistry …as [Rick] Rubin.” Can you explain why you think this is the case?
RH: Sam was one of my heroes in the record business, someone who recognized great talent and encouraged those artists to be true to themselves—Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. But John was just beginning. He didn’t really have his vision fully developed at Sun Records, which made it hard for Sam to understand the full scope of John’s talent. By the time Rick entered the picture, Cash had defined his vision and that gave Rick an enormous advantage. He saw the great things John did at Sun and Columbia Records and he found a way to get John to trust him, which in turn enabled John to recapture that early greatness and, even, move beyond it.
RH: I was struck by the number of people close to John who kept talking about the sadness in his eyes—a sadness that was there in good times and bad times. That’s why I love the cover of the book. It shows that sadness. Several things contributed to it—primarily the childhood death of his beloved brother, the guilt over the breakup of his family and the subsequent resentment from his daughters, the guilt over all the people he hurt severely because of his drug use, and, finally, his failure at various points to live up to the tenets of his Christian faith.
MT: Cash’s son said to you—and these are the last lines of the book—that his father’s “most enduring legacy is that his message continues to spread.” What in your mind is Cash’s message, and why, ten years after his death, does Cash remain the towering figure in country music that he is?
RH: I think there is a lot of truth to John Carter Cash’s statement. Though he didn’t define it at first, he was always trying to comfort and inspire people in his music. He wasn’t just an entertainer. That’s why people responded so strongly to him and his music. Like a Bob Dylan or John Lennon, Johnny Cash stood for something. People didn’t just believe in his music, they believed in him. It’s that belief that makes him such a towering figure to millions of people.
MT: Can you talk a little about the ways that Cash’s television show influenced his own view of music and his embrace of different genres?
RH: The chief impact of the TV show on John was that it showed him how big a following he had. The TV show was, in many, ways his pulpit. It was his way to spread his message and philosophy. That’s why he wrote songs like “What is Truth” and “Man in Black” and premiered them on the TV show. He was trying to tell people who he was and what he believed in. He was also trying to mend some of the wounds in the country in the early 1970s by bringing liberal young rock fans and conservative country fans together.
MT: What lessons/themes do you hope readers take from your book?
RH: I hope people see that music can be more than entertainment and that the best artists—like the best novelists and filmmakers—can tell us important things about life. I hope it also shows the strength and courage it takes to be a true artist; how you have to struggle against all kinds of temptations and career compromises to keep making significant music. Cash lost track of his art for a while, but he regained it gloriously in his final years.
MT: What are you currently working on?
RH: I’m starting to explore a couple of projects, including another biography of sorts, but it’s too early to talk about them. Check back with me in a year. (smile)
Keep you with Robert Hilburn at www.roberthilburnonline.com
Henry Carrigan writes about music and music books for Engine 145, American Songwriter, No Depression, Publishers Weekly, and BookPage.