Johnny Cash – The Life by Robert Hilburn

I just finished a biography of Johnny Cash, written by Robert Hilburn, a long-time music writer with the Los Angeles Times. It’s a page-turner, highly recommended. Not surprisingly, the book has a plethora of Dylan-related material.

Background on Cash

Cash grew up a very poor country boy from Arkansas. When his family moved to a new house, they were excited because it had glass windows instead of burlap sacks like the old one. That’s poor.

After high school, he moved to New York City and got a factory job. Feeling out of place, he moved back home. Later he joined the Air Force, the service traditionally being one of the few viable options for poor young men (like it was for my own father).

During his time in the service, he was assigned to a unit that attempted to break the encryption codes of the enemy. He found he had a knack for the work, and his success in this area gave him confidence. During his spare time, he played guitar and attempted to write songs.

After the service, he moved to Memphis where his brother lived. His brother worked at a car dealership and introduced Cash to some mechanics that worked in the shop who also played guitar. Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant would join forces with Cash for many years, going by the name Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. The Perkin’s distinctive guitar sound played a critical role in Cash’s early work.

Not long after Elvis, Cash also showed up at the doorstep of Sam Phillip’s Sun Studios. Phillips liked what he heard, and after a couple of false starts, recorded the legendary early Cash tracks such as Hey Porter, Cry, Cry, Cry and I Walk the Line. The rest is history.

Cash’s Influence on Dylan

A teenage Robert Zimmerman living in Hibbing, Minnesota would obsessively listen to those early Cash tunes in his bedroom at night. Being the discriminating music aficionado that he was, he of course became a big fan of country music and Johnny Cash in particular. He said:

Of course, I knew of him before he ever heard of me. In ’55 or ’56, “I Walk the Line” played all summer on the radio, and it was different than anything else you had ever heard. The record sounded like a voice from the middle of the earth. It was so powerful and moving. It was profound, and so was the tone of it, every line; deep and rich, awesome and mysterious all at once. “I Walk the Line” had a monumental presence and a certain type of majesty that was humbling. Even a simple line like “I find it very, very easy to be true” can take your measure. We can remember that and see how far we fall short of it.

From <https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/remembering-johnny-186961/>

Personal Relationship

Cash was aware of Dylan from the beginning. The head of Columbia Records, John Hammond, sent Cash a pre-release copy of Dylan’s first record. Cash liked it, writing to Hammond with his appreciation.

Cash was even more impressed with Dylan’s second release. Cash wrote Dylan a fan letter, which began a correspondence between the two. (See this site for more information. http://www.bobdylanroots.com/cash.html#dylan.)

The two met at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. (Many sources say 1963 – but I see no evidence that Cash played Newport in 63. I’m not sure.)

Cash and Dylan Together

We all know the story of the album Nashville Skyline, when Dylan “went country”. Cash happened to be recording in the same building at the time. Dylan’s producer, Bob Johnston, seized the opportunity by preparing a studio for them to record in together. They took the bait. The results were certainly nothing polished and refined, but it’s fun to watch the two legends enjoying themselves in the studio.

Dylan appeared on Cash’s TV show.

Covers

Cash’s Understand Your Man is not technically a cover of Don’t Think Twice, but it’s based on the same melody (which of course Dylan also borrowed). Cash record three Dylan songs on his Orange Blossom Special album: It Ain’t Me Babe, Don’t Think Twice and Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind. Cash and his wife June Carter reprised It Ain’t Me on the 30th Anniversary show (poorly).

Follow this link for more information on Cash covers –> https://borntolisten.com/

Dylan occasionally covered Cash songs at his shows. I was fortunate enough to be present when he played Big River in Baltimore.

Steeped in Tradition

Like Dylan, Cash always had considerable crossover appeal. Cash’s long-time manager, Saul Holiff, picked up on that early. Holiff pushed Columbia to market him not only to country fans but also pop, rock, and folk audiences. It worked. The main reason is that Cash’s influences were much wider and deeper than other country artists. As Hilburn wrote:

Like Cash, Dylan found his musical heroes in the past – not just the legendary” names like Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Robert Johnson, but scores of Irish, Scottish, and English balladeers Cash and Dylan delighted in talking about and playing those traditional ballads.

In Conclusion

Cash is the Dylan of country music. By that I don’t mean he’s the great of all time or anything like that. Just that Cash’s art is deeply entwinged in traditional music, just like Dylan’s. It’s no wonder the two developed a personal bond.

Dylan said about Cash on his death:

I was asked to give a statement on Johnny’s passing and thought about writing a piece instead called “Cash Is King,” because that is the way I really feel. In plain terms, Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him — the greatest of the greats then and now. I first met him in ’62 or ’63 and saw him a lot in those years. Not so much recently, but in some kind of way he was with me more than people I see every day.

There wasn’t much music media in the early Sixties, and Sing Out! was the magazine covering all things folk in character. The editors had published a letter chastising me for the direction my music was going. Johnny wrote the magazine back an open letter telling the editors to shut up and let me sing, that I knew what I was doing. This was before I had ever met him, and the letter meant the world to me. I’ve kept the magazine to this day.

Of course, I knew of him before he ever heard of me. In ’55 or ’56, “I Walk the Line” played all summer on the radio, and it was different than anything else you had ever heard. The record sounded like a voice from the middle of the earth. It was so powerful and moving. It was profound, and so was the tone of it, every line; deep and rich, awesome and mysterious all at once. “I Walk the Line” had a monumental presence and a certain type of majesty that was humbling. Even a simple line like “I find it very, very easy to be true” can take your measure. We can remember that and see how far we fall short of it.

Johnny wrote thousands of lines like that. Truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English. I think we can have recollections of him, but we can’t define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty. If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul. This is a miraculous and humbling thing. Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses. He rises high above all, and he’ll never die or be forgotten, even by persons not born yet — especially those persons — and that is forever.

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/remembering-johnny-186961/

Further listening

Albums

Cash recorded a tremendous number of records. The quality, certainly due in part to his decades-long amphetamine addiction, is very spotty. Here are the ones I think are the best (that I’ve listened to anyway).

First, listen to everything he recorded for Sun Records.

Next, listen to a Greatest Hits package. There are many.

Next, two live albums. At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin. Also all the American Recordings (there are five). All of these records benefit by not having Columbia studios attempt to gussy up Cash’s sound for radio.

Finally, listen to the following albums: The Fabulous Johnny Cash; Ride This Train (one of the first concept album); Blood, Sweat and Tears; I Walk the Line; Ragged Old Flag.

DVDs

The Johnny Cash Show – Selections from Cash’s variety show.

Town Hall Party – Video of Cash’s appearances on the legendary Town Hall Party shows. Recorded in 1958/59.

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