A Half-Million Dollars: Biographies of Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis

C. Michael Bailey By

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It was December 4, 1956. The famous black and white, now sepia photograph snapped that winter afternoon shows four young men, silhouetted against acoustic tile, making joyful noise. Three of the four were standing around the one at the piano, the one who would be king. When this photograph was taken, two of the men were 21-and the other two, 24-years old. Two were Baptists and two the chosen, Assembly of God, with both traditions shot deep in their individual flawed psyches. All were Scotch-Irish, hard-scrabbled proud Southern poor. These young men, young adults in the Post-War '50s, were about to change a culture so profoundly that we can scarcely consider our "today" without them. "No one wanted to follow Jerry Lee," Johnny Cash recounted years later. "Not even Elvis."

The picture is of Sam Phillips' "Million Dollar Quartet" taken at Sun Studios, 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee. The four men were, in order, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and the man who would be king, Elvis Presley. Two of these four men are enjoying carefully crafted biographies that reveal the Augustinian miracle of arising from humble settings, experiencing great fame, flaming out and catching fire again. Robert Hilburn's Johnny Cash -The Life and Rick Bragg's Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story provide an accounting of two of the most commanding figures in American music in equally commanding manners.

Johnny Cash -The Life
Robert Hilburn
688 Pages
ISBN: # 978-0316194754
Little, Brown & Company

The better part of 21st Century Johnny Cash reportage deals, at least in part, with Cash's masterful self-mythologization. This very subject was a driving theme of Tony Tost's ruminations on Cash's American Recordings (American Recordings, 1994) that he wrote for the 33&1/3 series:

"This book concerns itself...with the Cash myth and the elemental role American Recordings played in revitalizing and finalizing it... [Cash's myth] is a brilliant one, strange and necessary in equal measure... regarding [American Recordings] as a great late chapter in an ongoing narrative, one in which Cash mingled his creative and biographical pasts with the creative and biographical pasts of his country.

[It was not] until the first American Recordings album that the mythic Cash finally walked forward and backwards at once, carrying himself out beyond his time. He had greater celebrity before his final period, bigger albums and better songs, but not the permanence [my emphasis] that hung around him at the end. That's the story we are hunting for—his arrival into permanence. American Recordings is the album that did it, and the story is better than true."

...better than true.

The most Southern of personal attributes is storytelling, that oral tradition going hand-in-hand with mythmaking that relies more on creative elaboration than a strict recounting of facts. Johnny Cash wrote two autobiographies completely committed to this principle: don't wreck a good story with literary accuracy. Former Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn provides a more unvarnished portrait of the "Man in Black" and does so sympathetically, not taking Cash to too much to task.

Born J. R. Cash February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, Cash was to grow up with his parents and six siblings in Dyess, a Mississippi County share-cropping town in the unforgiving Arkansas Delta. He did not become known as John R. Cash until enlisting in the air force, who would not accept initials as a first name. It was not until Cash signed with Sun Records in 1955 that he took the stage name Johnny Cash.

Let's see...the conventional wisdom is Cash wrote and released some influential sides on Sun in the 1950s, with Carl Perkins, created rockabilly. He married young, had children and was eventually unfaithful to his wife, all the while consuming an impressive amount of Dexedrine and Equanil. He was arrested in El Paso with said drugs, receiving a suspended sentence. Cash got strung out on his upper-downer habit and with the help of country royalty, June Carter, kicked cold turkey, reunited with God and recorded Live at Folsom Prison (Columbia, 1968), quickly followed by Live at San Quentin (Columbia, 1969), casting himself in a soft bronze.

In the 1970s, Cash presented himself as "The Man in Black" taking full control of his own mythmaking, solidifying his outlaw, outcast image with often mercurial behavior and public positions. Through the '80s he was largely ignored save for his appearances with the "Highway Men" (Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson) and his introduction into the Country Music Hall of Fame as its youngest inductee. He pursued various charitable interests centering on the marginalized in America.

Cash lost his Columbia contract in 1987 and briefly recorded for Mercury Records with only meager results. In 1994, Cash was approached by American Recordings producer Rick Rubin to make a stripped down recording cover songs of contemporary artists selected by Rubin. These American Recordings ran to four volumes while Cash was alive, with two post-humorous volumes eventually released. Cash's final years were tempered with great success and failing health. Cash grew into an Old Testament Prophet specter, an image he solidified with his final recordings. He passed away four months following his wife, June Carter Cash.

That is the tidy version anyway, mostly culled from Cash's two autobiographies and made into the biopic I Walk the Line (20th Century Fox, 2005). This movie, for dramatic purposes, is somewhat sanitized much like Ray Charles biopic, Ray (Universal Studios, 2004). Life is so rarely has such clean lines even with the adversity and strife both men experienced. What Hilburn does in his well-researched and expansive biography is add the soot back into the story, not bracing Cash, but putting him in better perspective.

Hilburn reveals Cash's numerous infidelities while married to June Carter as well as his suffering multiple relapses to his chemical dependency, a number well beyond what Cash himself relayed. Now, this is more like real life. Hilburn describes how Cash pre-medicated with amphetamine before taking the stage at Folsom Prison, a fact that goes a far way in explaining the brilliant anger Cash exhibited when he spat out "Cocaine Blues" at a Mach 3 velocity. Hilburn dissects the Cash myth while leaving it largely intact, something important to the Cash story. The Man in Black was able to maintain his myth under, and in spite of, intense scrutiny.
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