There seems to be no end to the flood of books about Johnny Cash. Perhaps for good reason, since the Man in Black left a few words unsung — some of those were captured on the recent album Forever Words — and his life often seemed cloaked in the darkness of the garments that earned him his nickname. Our fascination with Cash and his life even drives us to look into his cooking and eating habits, so just last month John Carter Cash compiled and published The Cash and Carter Family Cookbook: Recipes and Recollections from Johnny and June’s Table (Thomas Nelson), which includes a great photo of Cash wearing shorts and June’s apron at a backyard cookout. With chapter titles such as “Early to Rise, Happy, Healthy, and Wise — Breakfast at the Cash Home” and “Savin’ the Best for Last — Desserts to Die For,” the Carter and Cash cookbook contains mouth-watering tidbits about the family and the recipes that they prepared for small family meals as well as larger gatherings.
Another new book on Cash just out is Alan Light’s Johnny Cash: The Life and Legacy of the Man in Black (Smithsonian), and it’s a gorgeous, lavishly illustrated biography of Cash that tells the singer’s story through pictures and memorabilia as much as through Light’s accompanying words. Combing through the Cash family archives, Light gathers over one hundred never-before-seen photographs, lyric sheets, posters, and handwritten notes to tell a vivid visual story of Cash’s life and music.
Light chronicles Cash’s life chronologically, dividing it into sections titled with one of Cash’s song titles. Thus, the introduction is called “I’ve Been Everywhere Man”; Cash’s early life, the period from 1932 to 1954, is titled “Five Feet High and Rising,” and the Sun Years, from 1955 to 1958, are called “Get Rhythm.” The section on Cash’s last ten years — from 1993 to 2003 — is called “The Man Comes Around,” while the chapter on Cash’s legacy may well sum up many listeners’ feeling about Cash: “I Still Miss Someone.”
In his usual crisp style, Light tells the familiar stories of Cash’s life from his birth in poverty in Arkansas and the horrific death of his brother, Jack, in a table-saw accident in the school shop to his first marriage to Vivian Liberto, his divorce from her, and his marriage to lifelong love June Carter Cash. Sprinkled through the book, of course, are the stories of Cash's music, from his early years in Sun Studios in Memphis with producer Sam Phillips — there’s a picture, of course, of the legendary “Million Dollar Quartet,” with Elvis seated at the piano, looking up at Carl Perkins, and Cash peering down over Presley’s left shoulder at a sheet of lyrics — to his last albums with Rick Rubin. There’s a now-poignant photo of Rubin at the engineer’s board talking to Tom Petty, next to whom Cash is seated.
The photos tell the best stories in the book, though. One full-page spread features two of Cash’s guitars on opposite pages. On one page is a photo of his custom Martin 000 size that was made for him in 1983 with a tree-of-life inlay on the fretboard and the headstock; on the facing page is a photo of his 1972 Martin D-35, with the top autographed by Gene Autry. The guitar, according to the caption, is said to the first black-finished Martin ever made. The photo of Johnny and June at the Press On recording session at their cabin in Hendersonville in 1998 etches the deep love and the years of life on their faces; it’s a touching and heart-rending moment captured on film.
Light captures better than any other writer Cash’s deep Christian faith, and he includes several photos of Cash, or the Cash family, with his close friend, Billy Graham. There’s also a letter from Graham to Cash, offering Cash encouragement in his faith. One of the photos features Johnny, in his black suit, and June, in a flowing white dress, singing at Explo 72 in Dallas, which was called then the Christian counterpart to Woodstock. Graham once said of Cash, “We were just brothers in Christ.”
The best artifact in the book is the Billboard ad published on March 14, 1998, after Cash won the Grammy for Best Country Album for Unchained. The caption on the ad reads: “American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.” The photo is the now-iconic image of a scowling Cash forcefully shooting the bird in a shot "for the warden" in 1969 at San Quentin State Prison, its use in the ad saying to country radio what he really means.
Photo by Jim Marshall
If you have time to read only one book on Johnny Cash this year, Light’s Johnny Cash: The Life and Legacy of the Man in Black should be the one you pick up. The stories are familiar, and many are told in other biographies, but these photos of Cash, his family, and his artifacts bring him and his music to life in a way that no other biography so far has been able to do.