Walk the Line gave us a broad portrait of the life of Johnny Cash up until about 1970. However, for the sake of a two-hour movie, many of the events and people in that movie, including June Carter Cash, were composites. While Cash did prowl around the south early in his career, sometimes staying up late with through the benefit of the pills that would eventually dog him most of his life, he never did have the package tour depicted in the movie with Carter, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins.
But Robert Hillburn doesn’t have to compress, composite, and rearrange for the constraints of a movie. Instead, he takes nearly 700 pages to paint a detailed portrait of Cash, his family, his friends and colleagues, and every virtue and every wart. What emerges is a flawed man who wanted so much to be better than he was. That conflict gave Cash, even at his weakest moments as a musician, the power that seldom failed to come through.
Cash was a man of deep spiritual thoughts, but never judgmental. He ignored the strictures of the Nashville music establishment (to this day even narrower than the music industry as a whole) and embraced all kinds of music. His classic “boom chicka boom” sound was, to him, his little niche. Cash was about the downtrodden and the poor, and he used his stage to shine a lot on them. And yet, as Hillburn points out, he was an addict and a womanizer and a workaholic. That last one, though never explicitly pointed out, probably made the drugs and womanizing inevitable.
Hilburn’s portrait, however, connects us to Cash in a way that says he’s human, just as flawed and broken as the rest of us. The sections about Cash’s decade-long association with Rick Rubin, probably the last person one would expect to revitalize Cash’s career, are especially poignant. Here we have Cash finally staying true to June Carter (and even a touching visit from first wife Vivian Liberto after Carter’s death), his addictions under control and at some points banished entirely, and finding new relavance thanks to Rubin. However, Cash’s body betrays him before he can finally retire to a quiet life with June (who herself succumbed to a life of working and playing hard months before Cash died).
Through Hilburn’s narrative, Johnny Cash alternately inspires and infuriates, delights and disappoints, and yet comes across as someone we’ve always known. Many musicians who achieve Cash’s stature often do good that outweighs their flaws (such as all four Beatles, Pete Townshend, or Mick Jagger). Cash never really tried to hide his warts, though. Even when Cash would lie (or rather, tell a really good story), he had an honesty that’s so rare.