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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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Recently, some young local bands here did a Johnny Cash tribute
Really? Where was that?

Here in SA!

That’s great! I think Rick Rubin brought him into a new generation of people. If it hadn’t been for the Rick Rubin years, he would not have had the same stature and the impact on people as he has today. The old people are gone and their influence has gone away, but it is the young people that got turned on by the Rick Rubin era that are still here. He appealed to so many different people. Rockers and punksters, and the reggae crowd are attracted to him because there was an essential truth in what he was saying. People believed Johnny Cash. He was very good at empathizing with people, especially with the underdogs, because he was an underdog himself. He had been in trouble with the law, so he could relate to people in prison whenever he sang in prison. He knew how to design shows in order to communicate directly to his audience, either in prison or at the White House. June didn’t want him to release the “Hurt” video. “John, your fans are going to think you’re destitute,” and all that, but he thought it was a piece of art. He was so brave to put that out.


Reading the book, it’s obvious that you really loved and admire Cash, but, as usual in your work, you had no problem being critical of him, and it is clear that Cash did make some awful albums…
Oh yes, he had bad albums. After the superstardom of the ’70s, the prison album and the TV show, he’s got a son now, he wants to enjoy that part of his life that was a blur in the ’60s. He was on drugs and felt guilt every day of his life about leaving his daughters. If you look at the picture in the cover of the book, those sad eyes… He always seemed to have those sad eyes. The sadness over leaving his family and his brother dying… There was a lot of sadness in his life. So in the ’70s he wants to devote his life to his family, invites the girls to come back to Nashville to be with him, he has a son, meets Billy Graham, goes out with him in crusades… In the ’60s music was his only comfort, he devoted night and day in writing better songs and recording concept albums. By the ’70s he had started to relax, paying attention to all the things he neglected in the ’60s, but he now started neglecting his music. And slowly the albums kept getting weaker and weaker. By the time he realizes this and tries to correct it, country music had left Cash behind. You get all these Kenny Rogers, and country radio won’t play Cash anymore. So he goes down and down and down. Once in a while he’d come up with a good album, but his confidence was gone and Columbia drops him. So the period from ’75 to ’90 or even 1993 was a very uneven period for Johnny Cash. When he wanted to think of the music again, it was too late. There were good tracks here and there, but for the most part those albums were poor. But another very important thing happened just a month before he met Rick Rubin. U2 invited him to the studio to sing the lead in “The Wanderer.” Written by Bono, it’s a gospel song. Cash was very intimidated because he had no confidence and here was the world’s biggest group asking him to sing with them. And he did it and got all this acclaim, and the album was a big hit, and Rolling Stone gave it a good review. That really helped him get his spirits up a little bit before Rick Rubin came in.

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