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Johnny Cash knew his business

Like Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, and Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash left impressions on the American musical tradition that won’t be erased by time. Cash was an innovator as well as a repository of songs with roots dating to the beginnings of the nation and farther back to British folk music. He was also a savvy businessman when it came to selling Johnny Cash, at least when he wasn’t whacked on pills. He knew that his natural rugged individualism and bad-ass leanings were almost as valuable a commodity as his songs, and he knew how to read the times and the marketplace to capitalize on his image.

That’s a recurring theme in both Michael Streissguth’s excellent Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Steve Turner’s less compelling but thoroughly informative The Man Called Cash. Actually, it’s the only theme explored by Streissguth, a country-music fan and professor at Lemoyne College in Syracuse who has written books about singers Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold and edited Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader. Writing in playful, brisk language, he focuses on an album that was crucial to Cash’s career. As he’s documented through interviews with producers, band members, and other Cash associates (including photographer Jim Marshall, whose black-and-white pictures in Streissguth’s book beautifully document the Johnny Cash Show’s January 1968 visit to the California penitentiary to make the album), the country star and early hillbilly rocker believed the live recording would revive his then-lagging career. Having played at the prison before, Cash knew that his captive audience would respond like no other. He also knew that prison reform was a hot issue that would get the album media attention, and that his own image as a pill-popping maverick with an arrest record might well appeal to the equally rebellious members of America’s still-rising youth culture and deliver him to a new audience.

Cash fought with Columbia Records to make the recording, but the label’s perception of him as a has-been — the same kind of industry stupidity that would erase him from radio airplay in the 1980s until his late-career American Recordings (American, 1994) revival — made that a losing battle until new young staff producer Bob Johnston embraced the project. Columbia resisted on the back end, too, omitting Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison from its summer-portfolio ads and releasing the album quietly.

As Cash had expected, his Folsom concert LP was embraced by the counterculture. The ground swell began with then-blossoming FM radio in San Francisco and spread to stations across the country and to the Village Voice, the Washington Free Press, and even the Los Angeles Times, where forward-thinking music journalist Robert Hilburn was already ensconced. By October 1968, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison had turned gold; it then moved on to platinum and its status as one of the essential recordings in American popular music.

Like Streissguth, English journalist Turner has an understanding of Cash’s business savvy that distinguishes his book from earlier volumes about the iconic, bucket-voiced singer. It’s a topic even Cash avoids in his two autobiographies, 1975’s Man in Black (Zondervan) and 1997’s Cash: The Autobiography (Harper). The Man Called Cash also ventures into two other relatively uncharted area of Cash’s personal territory: his days in the Army and his religious commitment.

Turner’s account of Cash’s Army days puts certain aspects of his musical sensibilities into perspective. The first is his sonic judgment. Cash’s broad-ranged ears earned him a 1951-’54 stint in Germany listening to coded radio broadcasts by our Cold War enemies. There he also developed his rudimentary guitar chops with barracks buddies and exercised a delightfully childish sense of humor that would eventually lead him to songs like "A Boy Name Sue" and "Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart."

Although Cash later traveled within the inner circle of American evangelism, counting the spiritual riftmonger Billy Graham among his closest friends, Turner’s investigations into the singer’s faith indicate that he was not a didact. (They also remind us of publisher W’s status as subsidiary of the Christian and "inspirational"-book specialty house Thomas Nelson, Inc.) Rather, he was a Christian whose Biblical interpretations fell to the side of peace, love, and brotherhood and who believed in the ultimate power of forgiveness. He believed in the words of the Bible, but he chose to read them as signposts to salvation and solace rather than to inhale them mindlessly as, uh, the Gospel truth. And he did so till his death at 71 on September 9, 2003.

Issue Date: January 14 - 20, 2005
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