By Jason KUROSU
The newly opened Brand Library celebrated the life of Johnny Cash on April 10 with a free live musical performance and a discussion of Cash’s life and legacy from the author of a recently published Johnny Cash biography. Long time rock music critic and writer Robert Hilburn spoke about his book “Johnny Cash: The Life” and his impressions of Cash after covering his exploits over the years.
Moderated by Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara, Hilburn described his experiences covering Cash, writing the book and trying to encapsulate both the man and the legend in the biography. Hilburn first wrote about Cash at his now famous 1968 Folsom Prison performance, where he was drawn to the way Cash wrote “music for the underdog.” This was epitomized for Hilburn at Folsom Prison, where Cash did not play “his greatest hits,” but “a show that was specifically aimed at the emotional makeup of those prisoners.”
Hilburn was surprised at how little he actually knew about Cash when he undertook writing the biography, highlighting the distance between interviewers and their subjects, no matter how seemingly candid the relationship.
“All we know is what they choose to tell us,” said Hilburn. “I thought I knew Johnny Cash’s life. I wasn’t within 50 miles of knowing his life.”
Among the lesser-known aspects of Cash’s life, according to Hilburn, was his uncertainty when appearing on stage, even so far as wondering whether audiences would like him and his music. After Cash’s death, Hilburn said he became privy to much more knowledge about the life of the “Man in Black,” with friends and relatives of Cash more willing to open up.
Despite the respect for Cash’s music, Hilburn’s book does not ignore the more unsavory aspects of Cash’s life, from his heavy drug use to his womanizing.
McNamara asked Hilburn what it was like to write such an “unflinching” book about someone he admired.
“I’m not an ethicist,” said Hilburn. “I want to present everything so that you, the reader, can make up your own mind.”
In fact, Hilburn said that the discovery of these aspects of Cash’s life only increased his respect for his music.
“Despite all this stuff, he was trying to lift people up. ‘No matter how difficult your life is, don’t give up. You can be redeemed.’”
When asked what he loved most about Cash, Hilburn responded with “his artistry and his commitment.”
Hilburn elaborated, “I’ve seen so many artists compromise and give up. If sales are slipping, they’ll copy what they did last year, same old hits over and over again. The thing that impressed me about him is that he never gave up.”
Hilburn stayed afterwards to sign copies of his book and answer questions.
Prior to the event with Robert Hilburn, attendees were treated to a half hour set from the Mighty Cash Cats on the steps of the Brand Library, where they performed several Cash hits, including, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Orange Blossom Special” and Cash’s popular cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”
For more Johnny Cash, the sixth annual Roadshow Revival will be in Ventura on Saturday, June 14. The annual Johnny Cash festival will feature a pin-up pageant, a car show and live music from numerous bands, including the Mighty Cash Cats.