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Johnny Cash: How the man in black found world full of light

Biography: Johnny Cash: The Life and Legacy of the Man in Black, Alan Light, Smithsonian Books €20.99


His saviour .... Johnny Cash  was guided to sobriety, sanity and hope when he met wife June Carter in 1967

His saviour .... Johnny Cash was guided to sobriety, sanity and hope when he met wife June Carter in 1967


His saviour .... Johnny Cash was guided to sobriety, sanity and hope when he met wife June Carter in 1967

Great art often arises as a coping mechanism for dealing with psychological trauma. This arrived in Johnny Cash's life at just 12 years of age in May 1944: when he witnessed his older brother, Jack, falling into a moving blade while felling trees on a local farm.

The family bereavement instilled in Johnny Cash a deep commitment to Christianity, right up until his own death in 2003 at the age of 71. Overcoming demons and finding light amidst darkness is a recurring theme that veteran music critic Alan Light returns to many times over the course of this concise book: which is more a mosaic of photographic art, a Johnny Cash archive, and a unique collection of random memorabilia, than a traditional biography.

Beautifully presented in A4 form, the tome also contains a host of previously unpublished photos. These include objects instrumental to Cash's spiritual and creative life, such as crucifixes; guitars; microphones; letters; handwritten notes; song lyrics, and a variety of artistic doodles. Other snaps capture Cash in a myriad of poses and personas.

There is Cash the rebel troubadour, singing behind prison gates to murderers and convicts; Cash at the White House, playing the role of diplomatic darling and iconic national treasure; Cash the happy family man, posing at his ranch in Jamaica; Cash the self-proclaimed preacher, singing about the downtrodden with empathy; and Cash the drug fiend, being publicly busted for carrying a suitcase full of pep pills and tranquillisers.

Cash's original brand of country folk music explored a world of broken love affairs, dirty beer halls, absent fathers and fallen individuals, whose murderous rage was always expressed gracefully, with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.

Light suggests Cash's greatest strength as a songwriter came from a subtle ability to weave his roots, his hardships, and inward expressions of pain and sorrow into a popular song form that also included humour and redemption too.

The fourth of seven children, J. R. Cash was born in 1932 into a world of rural poverty in Kingsland, Arkansas. His father, Ray Cash, was a struggling farmer and itinerant labourer who had a weakness for the bottle; and daily life for the Cash family often involved hours on farms picking cotton collectively to survive just above the breadline. Cash joined the US Air Force just after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950: a move which provided him with an income to buy his first guitar.

Five years later he released his first single, Hey Porter: thus kickstarting a monumental career that spanned five decades and surpassed 100m record sales.

There were, of course, years in the wilderness. In 1984 Cash hit rock bottom with the self parodying track, Chicken in Black. A novel, Man in White, followed two years later, with little success: culminating in Cash finding himself without a record label in 1990 for the first time in 35 years. But Cash's career experienced a resurrection between 1994 and 2002. This was his four American albums: produced by Rick Rubin, who tapped into Cash's ability to carry other artists' songs with enormous emotion, in a minimalist form where less said more.

Light recalls some of Cash's darker personal moments here in detail too: always giving valid analytical insight as he goes. We read how in the summer of 1967 Cash drove out to Nickajack Cave, near the Tennessee River, with the intention of committing suicide. The plan changed, however, when Cash had an epiphany: believing God would decide when it was time for him to die. Emerging from the cave, Cash embraced a woman who would guide him towards sobriety, sanity and hope.

Cash's fiery romance with June Carter was brought into the Hollywood mainstream in the 2005 biopic I Walk The Line, which oversimplified their relationship to some degree.

Light steers clear of mawkish sentimentality or fairy-tale endings. With limited space, the book sticks to hard facts. We read, for instance, how Cash had numerous relapses with drugs, alcohol and infidelities, many years after his marriage to Carter in 1968: this included an affair Cash conducted with Carter's sister, Anita.

But Cash was always the first one to admit to his own shortcomings and failings as a human being. And anyone who worked with him always remarked how his absolute sincerity as an artist and a man was never in doubt.

The figure we read of here is a kind of wandering mystic, who somehow still felt eternally connected to the land and his people; someone who saw his life almost like a religious parable, where forgiveness, sin and suffering intertwined; and where instruction to live came from scripture and a higher power.

Bob Dylan, who shared a studio with the country singer on his 1969 album Nashville Skyline summed up Cash's legacy rather aptly: "Johnny was and is the north star," he said, "you could guide your ship by him: the greatest of the greats, then and now."

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