Former Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn’s new biography on Johnny Cash, “In Search of Johnny Cash,” will be published by Little, Brown and Co., the publisher of Peter Guralnick’s massive two-volume Elvis Presley biography, “Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love,” and Keith Richards’ recent autobiography, “Life.”
Hilburn’s book will cover Cash’s artistic career and his turbulent life, from his days growing up in Arkansas to becoming one of the true icons of 20th century popular music.
“Of the many great rock pioneers in the 1950s,” Hilburn says, “Cash was the only one who approached his music as more than hits for the jukebox. He wanted his music to inspire and uplift people. In that goal, he was the crucial link between Woody Guthrie’s music of social idealism and commentary in the 1930s and 1940s and Bob Dylan’s music of revolution in the 1960s and beyond.
“Foreshadowing the stance of such landmark bands as the Beatles and U2, Cash recognized that he could use his music and fame to impact social attitudes, whether it was decrying the treatment of Native Americans or offering hope to others downtrodden by society,” Hilburn said by e-mail Monday in describing his second book since leaving The Times five years ago after serving as pop music critic for 36 years.
His first, “Corn Flakes With John Lennon and Other Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life,” contained personal reflections on his experiences interviewing several key figures of the rock era, including Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Joplin and U2 -- and Cash, whom he interviewed numerous times over four decades. Hilburn also was the only reporter to accompany Cash at his historic 1968 performance at Folsom Prison.
“I want to treat Cash with the critical eye and historical scholarship that he deserves as one of the major socio-cultural figures in America during the 20th century,” Hilburn told Pop & Hiss. “Despite his enormous popularity, I think he was a more important and influential artist and a more complex, often troubled person than even his biggest fans realized.
“His life was often a struggle between his artistry and his addiction -- and ultimately ... each contributed to the other,” Hilburn said. “But through Cash I want to also tell the story of the challenges and demands of artistry; how someone has to keep fighting for his vision -- against record company and/or public disinterest at times -- if he or she is to achieve something truly lasting."
Hilburn just signed the deal with Little, Brown and Co., following bidding by a number of other publishers, and is still researching and writing the book, so no publication date has been set. But he added, “It's absolutely the best place for me to be because the company is so respected in the publishing world -- and they do an especially good job with music books.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo of Johnny Cash and Robert Hilburn (on Cash's left) at Folsom Prison in 1968. Credit: Jim Marshall.