(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com 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."
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.