Book Review: Big John

Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader

Edited by Michael Streissguth. Da Capo Press, 352 pages, $26.00

When I was eight or so, I asked my stepfather what the difference was between Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Cash. As far as I could tell, they could be the same guy -- or related, anyway. "Big," my stepfather said, choosing, as usual, not to elaborate.

I'm sure he was talking about the gap in talent between the two country singers, but maybe he was also hinting at the bigness of Johnny Cash -- not just his physical size but his accomplishments. When we remember Paycheck, we think of "Take This Job and Shove It." Then there's J.C., the man in black: He's epic. Hence, the publication of Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader, occasioned by the artist's 70th birthday this year.

In Ring of Fire, many of the essays, magazine articles, book excerpts, and newspaper clips selected by editor Michael Streissguth make mention of Cash's impressive stature. One of the concert reviews, for instance, notes that he "has the huge shoulders of a weight lifter or professional fighter." Several writers in the collection comment on his barrel chest, a torso sized to accommodate an expansive heart.

Indeed, it's heart that explains Cash's persona, his lyrics, his performances, his actions -- all of which add up to what we might call his politics. When he sang in prisons (and when he wrote or recorded songs like "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Got Stripes," "San Quentin," and "Wanted Man"), it was to give inmates "a little relief," he told Country Music magazine almost 30 years ago. But it was also his way of calling for change in the criminal-justice system: "If we make better men out of the men in prison," he said, "then we've got less crime on the streets, and my family and yours is safer when they come out." In fact, Mr. Cash went to Washington in the early 1970s to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Prison Reform "about some things I had seen or knew about that go on in prisons."

Why did senators care what Cash had to say about prison conditions? It's not as if he'd done any serious time. In the 1960s -- his wildest decade -- he spent a few nights behind bars for smuggling amphetamines from Mexico, disturbing the peace, and whatnot. But he certainly never "shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die."

Similarly, why did the public and the press look to Cash as a spokesman for Native Americans, despite his lack of Native American blood? Although he recorded the album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian and raised money to build a Sioux school, he readily admitted that he has no Indian ancestry. Still, people wanted to believe he was part Cherokee, and so they did. (Even Cash sometimes romanticized along these lines when he was popping pills: "The higher I got," he said, "the more Indian blood I thought I had in me.")

Cash became an authority on the downtrodden, and not simply by wearing black clothes or penning sympathetic lyrics. He grew into this role as he'd grown into his wise voice and his weathered skin: by recovering, repeatedly.

During the Depression years, when Cash was young, a flood wiped out the federally owned farm on which his family lived and worked in Dyess, Arkansas. The town's residents -- all of them sharecroppers for the U.S. government -- had to clear out for a month while the land dried and then rebuild their lives. About seven years later, Cash watched his older brother Jack die from a severe table-saw wound. The family grieved while they hoed, because the cotton crop wouldn't wait.

Cash's early and middle adult years were filled with self-destructive behavior: rampant substance abuse and a not-unrelated penchant for getting into nasty automobile accidents. "It was like I was living with a bunch of demons," he told Larry Linderman in a 1975 interview for Penthouse. "I mean, they'd say, 'Go on, John, take twenty more milligrams of Dexedrine, you'll be all right.'" Most days he went ahead and took them, on top of the 40 milligrams, more or less, that he'd already ingested. In the 1980s, after he'd begun to slow down somewhat, he was nearly gutted by an ostrich and had open-heart surgery (these were separate incidents). He continued to struggle with drug addiction, taking painkillers longer than he needed them after his operations, and finally -- after a family intervention -- checked in at the Betty Ford Clinic.

From each devastation, it seems, Cash has emerged not hardened, but more empathic. In 1967, at one of his career's highest points and one of his life's lowest, he crawled into a Tennessee cave intending to lie down and die, but he ended up coming back out with a renewed sense of spiritual connection. Having learned throughout his life how crucial it can be to accept help -- from his God, his family, his friends, and his second wife, June Carter -- he has taken the pay-it-forward principle to heart. As he told writer Patrick Carr in 1979, he sees great importance in understanding "the real needs of the people."

So it might be tempting to tag Johnny Cash as a left-winger. In addition to his solidarity with the down-and-out, there's his friendship and artistic collaboration with Bob Dylan, as well as his anti-censorship views. And then there's the fact that he spent his childhood in Dyess, a cooperative colony for Depression-era farmers that was sponsored by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration; there, he says, he "grew up under socialism."

But as Tom Dearmore put it in a 1969 article for The New York Times Magazine, Cash "does not adhere to any politics." Nor does he claim to do so. Over the decades, he's expressed a personal fondness for Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore; yet he also liked Richard Nixon (pre-Watergate), Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush. That's quite an ecumenical group.

His audience is, too. Hippies held Cash in high regard, Dearmore wrote, "because of his affection for the rural poor and the incarcerated" and "because his profanity-studded language and strange attire place him outside the establishment." Fundamentalist Christians appreciate his spiritual journey and his marriage into the gospel-singing Carter family. Outlaws know his kind of pain. As Nick Tosches remarked in a 1995 article for the Journal of Country Music, "Even Ozzy Osbourne, the patriarch of heavy metal" -- and a friend of Cash's from the Betty Ford Clinic days -- "has waxed reverent: 'Not only do I admire Johnny Cash as a musician, but also as a man.'"

While the diversity of Cash's fans can be attributed partly to his complex mix of musical influences and styles (Streissguth actually refers to him as "the godfather of metal and gangsta rap"), it has as much to do with the fact that he speaks to all types of people. During the prison concerts he connected with convicts and guards alike. Albert Nussbaum, a former inmate at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, saw Cash perform there in the early 1970s and described the musician's fundamental appeal in a newspaper review: "Cash is real. He has a bad cough and smokes too much. So did most of us who had come to see him. He has a look of suffering caused by a hard life and years of one-night stands in forgettable places. We all had pasts we didn't like to think about either."

Even Chris Dickinson, one of Cash's most skeptical contemporary critics, concedes the artist's universal draw. Though Dickinson panned the 1994 album American Recordings as a marketing ploy -- as an attempt to cash in on a hip, edgy past, and not a genuine return to roots -- she was moved by seeing Cash live. "There was truth in Cash's image; gone was the carefully fashioned golden calf that graces the cover of American Recordings, replaced by an even more awesome image that was personal and nakedly human," she wrote.

Amid the numerous deferential pieces in Ring of Fire, Dickinson's sassy take provides some balance. In fact, the inclusion of her essay "Cash Conquers" may be Streissguth's most strategic editorial choice. While many of the collection's articles on their own are informative or critically illuminating, the book as a whole lacks shape. It is divided into vaguely defined sections ("Arkansas Train," "Apogee," "Legend," and "Back in Black"), and Streissguth's interspersed commentary provides little in the way of cohesion or even interesting diversion. If the editor had been more selective with the material, he could have spent less time straining to tie together loose ends and more exploring themes. But inclusiveness is the guiding principle, so any point of focus -- political or otherwise -- must be supplied by the reader.

Those who approach Ring of Fire with any kind of broader interest (in music history or popular culture, for instance) -- those who seek overarching insight and don't think it's enough for the book to "orient and re-orient newcomers and long-time fans to Cash and his multifaceted life and career" -- may find the stew rather thin. But Cash's fans won't be bothered by the miscellany, since many of the pieces are thoughtfully written and full of anecdotes. Johnny Cash has given his fans -- and writers -- a wealth of good material over the years.