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Bio worthy of Cash's legendary legacy

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From the cotton fields of Arkansas to Folsom Prison, Music Row to the back streets of El Paso, from the top of the charts to the bottom of the bargain bins, Johnny Cash's life was one of major peaks and dark, flooded valleys.

A man of contradictions and convictions, Johnny Cash: The Life invites readers to ride that train along with Cash. And the price of admission -- unlike many of Cash's drug-addled concerts or mid-period albums -- does not disappoint.

Robert Hilburn, a veteran music journalist with the LA Times, delivers a biography that pulls no punches. A frank examination of the legendary country singer, Johnny Cash: The Life delves at length into both the musical legacy and personal life of the legendary singer.

Extensive interviews and research form the backbone of the text, providing insight into both Cash's craft and his influence on country and pop music that resonates today. All the major players are heard and accounted for throughout the bio, from Sun Records founder Sam Phillips to Bob Dylan, Marty Stuart to producer Rick Rubin, Cash's ex-wife Vivian and all of his children, to country stars such as Merle Haggard, Cash's ex-roommate Waylon Jennings, and many more.

Throughout, Hilburn's casual style of storytelling allows the lengthy tome to move along at a comfortable clip while the oft-told story of the Man in Black comes across as fresh and exciting.

Rather than walking the line played out in popular culture, Hilburn is not afraid to expose Cash's many weaknesses. Whether looking at Cash's addictions or his infidelities throughout both his marriages, Hilburn does so throughout, while never dropping to the base level of tabloid journalism.

Many are familiar with the fairy tale of Cash and June Carter's romance. And while Hilburn doesn't blow that true story completely out of the water, he does provide the reader with greater insight. Ultimately, the story of Johnny and June is a love story of even greater depth and commitment than portrayed in 2005's Academy Award-winning Walk the Line.

Many of Cash's older fans are no stranger to his devout Christian faith. Throughout his life, Cash was always striving to bring his message of faith to those who listened to his songs. At times, this cost him both in money out of pocket and in fans who were alienated by his increasing proselytizing from the stage during the 1970s.

Cash was a man of deep contradictions, but worked hard throughout his life to come to terms with those contradictions. Hilburn's biography does an excellent job of showcasing that struggle, especially when it comes to Cash's later years. As his old buddy Haggard explained, "Cash lived in constant, serious pain" for the last 10 years of his life.

Those final years are painful even for the reader, but ultimately, as in Cash's life, uplifting. Even more remarkable is that he produced some of his best work in those years.

For any serious Cash or country music fan, Johnny Cash: The Life is a must-read. It's an insightful reminder that Cash was one-of-a-kind. There will never be another Man in Black.


Sheldon Birnie is a writer and editor living in Winnipeg who plays country music on the weekends, with at least one Johnny Cash song in the set.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, July 5, 2014 at 8:55 AM CDT: Formatting.

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