NASHVILLE SKYLINE: New Biography Traces Johnny Cash

He and His Family Authorized The Man Called Cash

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

As he neared the end of his life and his career, Johnny Cash was obviously sensing his mortality and began to open up about things. His music became honest to the brink of pain. And he also talked in a few interviews very frankly about his wayward life and epochal times, his triumphs and his shortcomings, his many sins and his redemption.

And he planned to do an authorized, co-written autobiography, emphasizing his spiritual life. Co-author Steve Turner, a veteran and respected British music writer, was scheduled to begin interviews with Cash in October 2003. Then, Cash died on Sept. 12. The Cash estate wanted Turner to continue with the project and provided extensive access to files, personal letters and family archives and access to family members who hadn’t spoken before on the record.

The result is The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love and Faith of an American Legend. (W Publishing Group; released on the first anniversary of Cash’s death, Sept. 12). And it does succeed on many levels in tracing Cash’s spiritual odyssey throughout his life, to the ultimate point of his earning a theology degree and becoming an ordained minister. The book explores the dichotomy of Cash trying to balance his spiritual side against his baser side, to the extreme that he once said, “There are times that I want to go off into the woods and cry, because what I feel is too big a load for me to carry.”

The book includes a chapter of new information about his military service. There’s new information on his relationship with Elvis Presley, his drug history, his arrests, the love-fear relationship with his father and details of his many illnesses and his last days.

Little touches not seen before from Cash reveal much about the man himself, as in a letter he wrote to an Air Force buddy after his record “Cry, Cry, Cry” was released on Sun Records and was picking up radio play. In it, he brags about the fact that his new “potential manager” says his future is rosy. “This guy says he’ll guarantee me I’ll never make less than $20 a night, and lots of nights I’ll make $30 or more when we play the bigger towns.” He signed the letter thusly: “Johnny Cash, the most promising young artist Memphis, Tennessee has ever produced.”

Cash was also realistically evaluating his career. In a letter replying to a friend who asked why “Cry, Cry, Cry” was not a national hit, Cash wrote: “Reason #1 — New artist. Reason #2 — Small label. Reason #3 — No financial backing. Reason #4 (Which could be #1) It’s only hot in a few places at once because the disc jockeys in some areas didn’t start to play it until they noticed it was a hit elsewhere.” At the time, he was still holding on to his day job of selling refrigerators. He soon got his first royalty check from Sun, and with that $6,000 he quit his job to play music fulltime, paying $90 for a “nearly new” Martin guitar. He was almost 24 years old.

There are a number of never-before-published photographs of family and friends. A chronology of Cash’s life is included, as well as a selected discography.

The text closes with a previously-unpublished interview that Turner conducted with Cash in 1988, which is an interesting snapshot of him at that time in his life, but no more than that. It’s just a shame Cash didn’t have the chance in 2003 to sit down and do the interviews that he had clearly been planning, to finally reassess his life. Cash was such a complex and complicated man, I am confident that there is room for more Cash biographies for years to come.

The editor in me requires that I point out that Bob Oermann’s name is misspelled twice in the bibliography. Once is accidental; twice is carelessness.

In an age of hyped so-called musical superstars who cannot write songs, play instruments or sing, a serious artist such as Johnny Cash deserves our attention. The fact that Johnny Cash would still insist on a painfully truthful and factual accounting of his life and times in this era of the whitewashed artist biography and publicists’ spins on everything — well, he deserves an added salute for that. He was a man. The Man Called Cash is the best account to date of a truly remarkable life.