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November 1, 2013

Book Notes - Robert Hilburn "Johnny Cash: The Life"

Johnny Cash: The Life

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Robert Hilburn's Johnny Cash: The Life is one of the finest and most compelling biographies of a musician I have ever read, a definitive biography of both the man and his music.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"The personal knowledge aided by extensive archival research and always compelling, accessible writing makes this an instant-classic music biography with something to offer all generations of listeners."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Robert Hilburn's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Johnny Cash: The Life:


Here are interesting sidelights on some of Johnny Cash's best-known recordings—as a couple of career oddities.

"Folsom Prison Blues"—Cash was stunned to learn in 1955 that Sun Records' Sam Phillips was planning to send "Folsom Prison Blues" to Tennessee "Ernie" Ford because he didn't think Cash and the Tennessee Two could do a good it effectively. After Cash pleaded for another chance in the studio, Phillips gave in and was so impressed he released Cash's version, which became his breakthrough country hit.

"Hey, Porter"—Though Cash wrote this song on the way home to Arkansas after three years in the Air Force in Germany, he used Tennessee in the lyric. He just couldn't think of enough rhymes with Arkansas.

"I Walk the Line"—Sun Records' Sam Phillips liked songs with a sad theme but happy beat and he frequently urged Cash to put more rhythm in his arrangements. After hearing Cash's relatively slow treatment of "I Walked the Line," Phillips again asked Cash for a bit faster version. Cash resisted because he wanted the love song to be tender, but he went along when Phillips assured him he'd release the slow version. When Cash heard "I Walk the Line" for the first time on the radio, he was shocked to find it was the slightly faster recording that Phillips had coaxed him into doing. Cash was furious, but when it became a hit, Cash rarely mentioned the slow arrangement again.

"Home of the Blues"—This popular lament lists Johnny Cash as one of three co-writers, but Marshall Grant said the song was really written by Glenn Douglas Tubb and Vic McAlpin. As the story goes, Tubb said they'd give Cash a third of the royalties if he'd record the song, a fairly common practice in country music at the time. In fact, some songwriters, desperate for room rent, sold all rights to their compositions for $50 or so. But Cash later felt guilty about the arrangement and never again took royalties for something he didn't write.

"The Matador"—Cash's greatness as a recording artist was due in great part to his desire to make meaningful music that helped lift his audiences' spirits in troubled times, but on rare occasion he simply went after the hit. In following "Ring of Fire," the huge 1963 single that opened with the bright burst of Mariachi horns, Cash shamelessly repeated that horn opening in "The Matador." Even though the song went to number one on the country charts, Cash rarely performed it live and never included it on any of his "greatest hits" albums.

"Understand Your Man"—This open letter to Cash's first wife, Vivian, was clearly influenced by the hours spent listening to Bob Dylan's music. Not only did it carry much of the melodic feel of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," but also the lyrics reflected a similar mix of confrontation and wit.

"A Boy Named Sue"—Remarkably, this Shel Silverstein novelty was a spur-of-the-moment selection during Cash's 1969 concert at San Quentin. Johnny had been given the lyrics in Nashville just before heading to California and had no plans to play it live in the prison show. During the concert, however, he decided to add it to the set—even though he hadn't memorized the words or even rehearsed the tune with the band. He simply put a sheet of paper with the lyrics on a music stand in front of him and told the musicians to follow along. Within seconds, the musicians fell into line and that version of "Sue" became one of Cash's most popular recordings.

The Johnny Cash-Bob Dylan Bootleg Album—While Dylan was in Nashville in early 1969 working on Nashville Skyline, producer Bob Johnston, who worked with both Dylan and Cash, set up a separate session in hopes the two friends might record a few songs in the studio together—and that's what happened. They did some of their own songs, including "Big River" and "Understand Your Man," as well as country standards and a blues favorite. Though Johnston loved the results, the album was never officially released, probably because Cash and Dylan both thought the music was too ragged. It has been, however, released in bootleg form.

And, finally, two tracks that never were—Though Cash accepted most of Rick Rubin's song suggestions during their remarkable years in the studio, Cash had no interest in two titles that the bearded producer threw out, both Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" and Frank Sinatra's "My Way." He thought the former was too slight and the Frank number simply overwrought.


Robert Hilburn and Johnny Cash: The Life links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpts from the book

Boston Globe review
Los Angeles Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Tulsa World review
USA Today review

Los Angeles Times profile of the author
Morning Edition interview with the author
Music Tomes interview with the author
Nashville Scene interview with the author
Omnivoracious interview with the author
Rolling Stone interview with the author
San Antonio Current interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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