With few exceptions, what passes for country music these days is a
rehashing of Eighties rock, Journey with fiddles and steel guitars,
performed by a standardized collection of Barbies and Kens with
interchangeable heads. You know something is wrong when the stuff
that actually sounds like country music is labeled "alternative
country." The soul is missing from country music, having been
replaced by a marketing strategy. Cowboy hat? Check. Pick-up truck?
Check. Yep, it's country.
No it isn't.
And this brings us to Johnny Cash. He was the real deal, one of the
last of his breed. If the man's body of work isn't enough to
convince you, you'll find ample proof in Steve Turner's THE MAN
CALLED CASH, the authorized biography of country music's legendary
Man in Black.
Turner draws on the personal recollections of an army of Cash's
friends and family to present a detailed portrait of a complex,
flawed, flesh-and-bone human being. Don't let that "authorized
biography" designation get in the way. This is a warts-and-all look
at Cash's remarkable life and equally remarkable music.
In many instances Turner's sources provide conflicting versions of
anecdotes from various stages in Cash's career. In the delta
between the various recollections of events, something both
sobering and wonderful emerges --- a realization that, regardless
of status or celebrity, we are all ultimately defined less by what
we actually do than by how we are remembered. Memories are informed
by context. In Johnny Cash's case, as presented in this book, that
context is defined by Cash's ability to connect on a profound level
with people, in both his personal relationships and in the creation
and performance of his music.
But THE MAN CALLED CASH is no more an attempt to whitewash Cash's
life and career than it is a superficial tell-all. Rather, it is an
honest look at an honest man, an artist who drew equally on his
demons, his faith, his joy, and his pain to produce music that
spoke of and to working men and women on a visceral level.
Throughout his career Johnny Cash put his soul into his music,
without affectation (one would be hard pressed to find a photo of
Cash in a cowboy hat). In channeling the memories of so many whose
lives intersected with Johnny Cash's, Steve Turner has managed to
put Cash's soul on paper. Read this book if you care anything at
all about American popular music, and be reminded of what country
music is really about.
Reviewed by Bob Rhubart on January 7, 2011