Robert Hilburn Talks About Johnny Cash
— A Big Fall Books Preview Selection
Robert Hilburn's upcoming Johnny Cash: The Life is one of the Fall books I'm most excited about. Hilburn knew Johnny Cash throughout his life, and his book is well researched, appreciative, and clear-eyed. Cash is one of the most authentic guys you'll find in music, and this book makes that clear–Cash had a lot of problems in his life, and he caused problems for others who were close to him, but he remained a man of genuine artistry and empathy.
Robert Hilburn was kind enough to answer some questions about Cash and I'm thrilled to share that interview here.
Johnny Cash: The Life will be available October 29, 2013.
Chris Schluep: You were at the Folsom Prison concert. What was that like, and did you have a sense at the time that you were partaking in something historical?
Robert Hilburn: I was just getting started as a freelance music writer for the Los Angeles Times and I thought the idea of writing about Johnny Cash—the man who wrote "Folsom Prison Blues" actually singing the song at Folsom State Prison—was a natural. To my surprise, an editor at the paper rejected the idea. His words, "We don't want to give any space to that drug addict." And that was Cash's reputation at the time. He missed so many concerts that his own record label, Columbia, refused to invite press to the date; the last thing they wanted was another "no show" article. But I heard about the concert through a Los Angeles disc jockey and, after getting my editor to change his mind, found myself the only music writer on the scene.
The show was spectacular. Cash was as charismatic as anyone I had ever seen on a stage. More importantly, he conveyed grand artistry and purpose. Rather than simply do his regular show at Folsom, he tailored a set list specifically for his audience. Because of his own troubled lifestyle, he empathized with the prisoners. He knew how it felt to stand before his loved ones in handcuffs and to face the future without hope—and he reflected those shared feelings in his music. I left Folsom with a standard of artistry that I applied to performers for the rest of my years as a pop critic. I didn't know the album would open the door to superstardom for Cash, but I knew it was a classic moment in American pop culture.
CS: How do you feel he was misunderstood as an artist?
RH: Cash was more troubled in his personal life and more influential in his professional life than even his biggest fans realize—and it was that mixture of career accomplishment and frequent personal turmoil that was at the intersection of Cash's story and legacy. The drugs were just the tip of the iceberg in the story of Cash's troubles. Even more daunting was his lifelong guilt over having abandoned his four girls and his failure to fully live up to his spiritual ideals. At the same time in a profession where success is measured almost exclusively in hits, Cash wasn't a singer whose ambition was another hit on the jukebox. He wanted most of all to make music that lifted people's spirits, especially the downtrodden. Cash's music was rooted in folk and country, but his recordings eventually reached all the way into rock and even hip-hop circles. There was something wonderfully universal about him.
CS: You knew Johnny Cash through his life, but you also did a lot of research for the book. What's an example of something that surprised you about him while you were performing your research?
RH: One of the first things I learned about Johnny is I had to double-check everything he said: He wasn't one to let facts interfere with a good story. He wasn't so much trying to mislead people as make the stories more colorful. One of my favorites involved the writing of "Folsom Prison Blues." Though Cash said time and again that he wrote the song in 1951 after seeing a movie about Folsom during his Air Force days in Germany, I learned he, in fact, wrote it three years after seeing the movie—and then only after hearing another song, pop composer Gordon Jenkins' ‘Crescent City Blues," that gave him the outline. I had heard pieces of the story, but didn't know the specifics until I sent an email questionnaire to the members of Johnny's old Air Force squadron. One of the questions was whether they had ever heard of "Crescent City Blues." To my delight, one airman, Chuck Riley, replied he had not only bought the Jenkins album on a "whim" but that he was also playing it in the barracks in late 1953 or early 1954 when Johnny happened by. Cash was so intrigued "Crescent City Blues" that he asked Riley to borrow the album so he could make a tape of the song. Over the next few months, Cash changed the song from a tale of lost love to a lonely prison setting. Though he made significant alterations, Jenkins eventually sued for copyright infringement—and Cash agreed to a $75,000 settlement. It was a small price to pay. If Cash had never heard Riley's copy of the obscure album, it's unlikely he would have ever written a song called "Folsom Prison Blues."
CS: In your view, why is Johnny Cash a legend?
RH: Early in life, Cash was moved by music—especially country and gospel—because it lifted his family's spirits as they worked the cotton fields in Arkansas. As he got older, he would see music continue to give people comfort and hope, and that appealed to him. Cash also had a remarkable ability to empathize with his audience, whether it was young soldiers in Vietnam or Native Americans or the aged. In turn, his audience felt an attachment to him. He wasn't just an entertainer, but someone who shared his audience's hopes and concerns and values. He came across as authentic, trustworthy and unique. As Bob Dylan said, "Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him—the greatest of the greats."