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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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Well, when he happened to unknowingly be driving around Sun Studios at such an important time in music’s history…
Oh, yes… Well, the first lucky incident is just him going to Memphis. He goes to Memphis because he wants to get a job there. But the truth is that, for a young, unschooled Johnny Cash, there isn’t a better place he could’ve picked than Memphis. Sam Phillips is just starting Sun Records, and the first day [Cash] arrives back from Germany Elvis cut his first record there. Johnny Cash loved that record. He saw Elvis appear at a drugstore opening singing the song, and he asked him, “How do I get a job at Sun Records?” And he called Sun Records and they kept putting him off day after day after day. After work he would go home and drive by Sun Records not knowing it was there, until the day he finally went to see Sam Phillips and [Phillips] said, “OK, sing some stuff, maybe we can make some music together.” Had he moved to a different place, he would’ve probably not made it because [Cash and the Tennessee Two] weren’t that great, not at all like other stars of the time. And the other important thing is that, by recording with Sun Records, he always had a rock ’n’ roll audience interested in him. Had he gone to Nashville and made those same records he would have never made it. He’d be considered a country star like Marty Robbins or somebody like that. By going to Sun he was always part of that Elvis Presley/Jerry Lee Lewis world. So when he goes back to Folsom Prison in 1968 Rolling Stone is all excited, because here’s a rock and roller doing that kind of stuff. If Marty Robins had done the same thing, [RS] would not have cared.

OK, so that was the first stroke of luck, and the last one was meeting Rick Rubin.
That sure was. But the biggest one of all, probably, is when he’s in Germany and in his first week he sees a movie called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. Had he gone to Germany a week later, he would have never heard of Folsom Prison and wouldn’t have written the song. But even then, he gives up on writing the song, and one day he’s walking down the barracks and a guy was listening to a song he had bought on a whim the night before, “Crescent City Blues.” Cash hears that, goes over to the guy and says, “Could you play that again?” And he pretty much copied, or stole, or however you want to put it, but so much of “Folsom Prison Blues” is from “Crescent City Blues.”

 

So if that guy hadn’t bought that record, [Cash] would not have heard that song. But by 1993 he had been dropped by Columbia Records, he was doing terrible in Mercury Records, he had no more faith that people even cared about him, he thought his career was over and his legacy forgotten, and this rock ’n’ roll/rap producer walks into a show at the Rhythm Café in Santa Ana… He had been playing arenas in his life and now he’s playing these little cafes. June Carter said, “This is ridiculous, John. You can’t work with this guy, a rock/rap producer.” But [Cash] had no alternative. When I talked to Rick that is the thing that struck him the most about Cash’s reaction—the fact that Cash was curious. “Why would anybody be interested in me? My career is over with.” So Rick’s biggest challenge was rebuilding Cash’s confidence in himself. And that’s a really inspiring story, to see how these two guys became so close and how Rick struggled, and struggled, and struggled to get Cash to believe in himself again. And once John started to believe in himself, he was able to do some of the best work of his life, at the age of 65.

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