Perhaps not everyone will want to read a 600+ page book on Johnny Cash. But if you are that sort of person, Robert Hilburn’s new biography is a much more comprehensive tome than any of the previous attempts to filter through the manifold complexities of the Man in Black’s psyche. While Cash’s contributions to American music are pretty much incontestably clear today, this hasn’t always been the case. As Hilburn outlines, in painstaking fashion, throughout the 1970s and 80s, even as Cash became lionized as an iconic figure of popular culture, his record sales were poor, production values mediocre, and he was dropped from his longtime label. Of course the rejuvenation of his career during the later years working with producer Rick Rubin turned this around to an enormous degree, enabling a reconsideration of Cash’s importance to so many musical genres: rock and roll, rockabilly, country, blues, folk, and gospel. Hilburn, a veteran music critic gets his facts straight, sometimes at the expense of a gripping narrative, as the second half of the book gets rather more pedestrian. Cash’s own autobiography, while sketchy in terms of some of the particulars remains a riveting read and offers a nice compliment to Hilburn’s archival and journalistic foraging. However both are probably good recommendations for airplane reading if you are a Cash fanatic, and if you aren’t, what’s keeping you?
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