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Arts & Culture

Music Journalist Robert Hilburn Talks About His Book, 'Johnny Cash: The Life'

Photo: Jim Marshall, License: N/A

Jim Marshall

Cash at 1968’s historic Folsom Prison concert; to his left, Hilburn, the only music journalist present



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I was used to people saying, “One, Two, Three O'clock, Four O'clock rock!” “I want to be your teddy bear” or “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” There was a lot of sexual terms but not a lot of adult darkness stuff. There was something serious about Cash. I heard a lot of country music, but he wasn’t like other country stars. That’s one of the main things I tried to answer with the book: why was he different? Why did he have a sense of artistry? Coming from a cotton patch in Arkansas and entering a country field where no one else before him, no matter how big the star, had no more ambition than another hit in the jukebox, why was Johnny Cash different? In all my years as a journalist with the Los Angeles Times I pretty much knew everything. I interviewed Lennon, and Dylan, Springsteen, Bono, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson… And I thought I could get a pretty good read on people. I thought that, if you talked to somebody, you had the final answer, that they were the final authority. But when I started writing the book I realized how little we know about celebrities and how much I didn’t know about Johnny Cash, even though I was around him over and over and over again in his life, doing stories about him. Celebrities choose to tell us what they want us to hear. I don’t really know what Bob Dylan is really like, even though I’ve interviewed him a dozen times. But when writing this book, I would find out that things [Cash] said were just not true, and I don’t think he was trying to lie, but make the story a little bit more interesting, so he would embellish upon it. And the people around him, everyone sees something different. And there would be little things, like the first time he flew into Memphis, after being in the Air Force; [someone] says he came to Memphis on the Greyhound bus, [San Antonio’s] Vivian [Liberto, Cash’s first wife] says he flew into the airport, Cash said he flew but Vivian wasn’t at the airport. So you have to talk to so many different people to figure out what likely happened. So at one point you have to be sort of like a judge to the whole thing. Those are the simple things, but the hard part is when there are significant things and you’re trying to piece together what the truth is. I wasn’t within 50 miles of what Johnny Cash’s life was really like. His personal life turned out much darker than I thought it was. He had burdens, and guilt, and drugs, things that weren’t quite honorable, and I was really surprised. But at the end of the book he comes off as a hero, because he keeps fighting through all that stuff to make music that inspires somebody. I kept telling myself, “Oh my gosh… should I tell people about this? Is this too private or not?” Some members of the family didn’t want you to say things that might hurt their dad’s image, but [daughter] Rosanne Cash was very good about this. She said, “I don’t care how uncomfortable it makes me feel; if it’s the truth, tell the truth.” That was very helpful. It was a difficult journey but I just loved every minute of it. (continues on the next page)

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