I now feel like I know a lot of secrets about the life of Johnny Cash. I always feel like this after I read the biography of a famous person. Well, rather – listen to a biography of them. I have nearly always commuted to work anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour or more. I live in a small town, there’s not a lot of good jobs near me. A few years back I signed up for a free trial of Audible. I downloaded the biography Pete Townsend, and I was fascinated by all the things I didn’t know about his life. Since then I have been listening to audiobooks on my commute of a wide variety of musicians from the last 50 years. The more in depth the book is in the life of that person, the more I like it.
On a whim I downloaded Johnny Cash: The Life autobiography last month by writer Robert Hilburn. This book isn’t very old, it came out in 2013. Maybe that’s why many of the stories that were in the book that I relayed to other musicians, they had never heard before.
There are a couple things right off the bat that I can now tell people about Johnny Cash that I never knew. The first was that he was a lifelong addict from the 50’s and 60’s right up until the day he died. The other was that his wife, June Carter Cash, was as well. Though Johnny was in rehab many times, he was never really able to maintain sobriety longer than 6 months. His last wife, June, never did attend rehab. Today’s mentality of “drug addict” is completely different how things were when Johnny Cash began his career in the 1950’s. Today you can go to the gas station and grab a 5 hour energy or countless energy drinks. Back in the 50’s you could get amphetamine pills at any gas station or corner drug store over the counter. Even when you eventually needed a prescription, it was not hard to get as much dexedrine as you wanted. These pills are very addictive, and Johnny started out taking them to stay up for long night drives from gig to gig, and what began as a handful turned into hundreds per day over the years.
It was common for musicians of the day to use these pills (and alcohol). June Carter grew up in a traveling music family that had a “medicine bag” on the bus filled to the brim with pill bottles for nearly whatever ailment you had. I knew about Johnny’s struggles with drugs but had never heard about those of June Carter Cash. Most people know Johnny Cash as “The Man in Black”, one of the most famous country music singers of all time. The second thing that comes to mind is that he had the perception of being a rebel.
Johnny cash grew up in a rural area of Arkansas, and his family was very poor. He started working in the cotton fields with his family at age 5. He was born with no middle name, just the first two initials “J.” and “R.”. When he enlisted in the military he was forced to fill out forms with a first name, and that’s the first time he used the name “John R. Cash”. He had a brother named Jack who died when he was a teenager. He had a premonition something bad was going to happen to his brother and begged him to go fishing instead of going to school. Instead Jack went and was almost cut in half while using the band saw. As a result of that accident he died, and Johnny’s father told him that he wished he had died instead of Jack. Johnny felt like if he would’ve prevented Jack from going to school he wouldn’t have died. Imagine having that guilt hang over you for a lifetime, in addition to never feeling you were good enough for you father on top of it. That might make you into a life long rebel from the get-go.
You also might not know that Johnny Cash sold more than 90 million records in his lifetime. He also recorded more than 96 records. The odd thing about Johnny Cash is that he had some early success in the 50’s and created hits that he would play his entire career, and he rode that popularity throughout the 60’s. But in the 70’s, despite recording more than a dozen records he had no hits that decade at all. It was as his career simply didn’t exist. In fact he watched Willie, Waylon (his one time roommate), Kris Kristofferson, and Kenny Rogers climb the charts many times and was a bit miffed he could not do the same. He was even offered the song “The Gambler” and turned it down, only to later watch Kenny Rogers make it a career defining smash hit single.
Johnny did have a career resurgence in the 80’s, and then finally rediscovered a younger crowd with the American Recordings sessions recordings with Rick Rubin in the 90’s. The things you learn in the book are all the things you didn’t know. The decades of substance abuse, the depression, the wives, families, cheating, and countless shows where he could barely sing a note or practically fell off the stage. There were certain venues that for years would never book him again. There were many times in the 70’s that he would disappear with some drugs and go into the desert in California with his Winnebago for days at a time. His family didn’t know where he was or when he would be back. Even with all this, he seemed to constantly be recording new music and constantly touring each year.
If you think you know the man in black, think again. He lived a very complex life, and it’s a miracle he lived as long as he did. Johnny cash was a very honest hard working person from very little means. His kids will probably tell you that he was the very best and also worst father ever (depending on time of his life). He was religious, and yet could not understand why certain things happened to him or his family. I’m sure he struggled with his brother’s death and how God could let that happen for his entire life. If you want to learn more, I would encourage you to read (or listen to) Johnny Cash: The Life.