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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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What’s the story of the famous Folsom Prison photo?

I was just there trying to write a story and I was looking for angles. He was standing there trying to sense the audience. He was nervous, this was an important step in his career, and I was just looking around for things I could use in the story. I thought it was going to be an exciting moment, but who knew it would be a landmark album?

He spent relatively a small amount of time in San Antonio, yet those were key years in his life.



That was so important, because he came out of Dyess, Arkansas, which was like 50 miles from Memphis, and he had been out of Dyess four or five times in his life, a small town of 2,500, and he didn’t have a lot of self confidence. His father never really thought he’d amount to anything. He’d gone to Detroit to try to work at an auto factory and had suffered a lot of anti-Southern bias, and he didn’t know if he’d suffer the same bias in [SA]. He was very nervous going to the Air Force, but it turned out he did very well and passed all these tests at Lackland. He was a star, other [soldiers] would come up to him and ask for his help. That did great for his confidence, and the second time he came to [SA] he had no experience with women, he barely had girlfriends in high school, and he meets Vivian at this roller rink. He knew how to roller skate because he worked at a rink in Dyess, but he pretended not to know so she could help him stand up and so forth. He was looking for a girlfriend so he could tell the guys at the barrack, “I got a girlfriend,” he could write her letters, and he felt very deeply in love very quickly. It did great for his confidence that someone from outside of Dyess could be interested in him. When he went to the Air Force he would write her a letter once or twice a day, everyday for three years, more than 1,000 letters.

Johnny Cash and Vivian

She was hoping they could live in [SA], because her family was there and had strong roots in SA, but he wanted to go to Memphis because it was closer to Dyess and his brother was already there, and that’s how he ended up in Memphis. And in SA would’ve been harder to start a music career. But he didn’t go to Memphis to start a music career, but because his brother found him a job.

In spite of all the drama in his life, he was a lucky guy, being in the right place at the right time throughout his life.
He sure was. I even thought of giving speeches on “Johnny Cash’s luck.” There are so many instances… Can you think of a specific one?

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