Johnny Cash: The Autobiography

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have your really old, really cool grandpa sit you down on his knee and tell you stories about his life? And in those wonderings, your grandpa was Johnny Cash? This book will quench that desire.

Cash has a way with words, but not in the long-form sense. He’s rather economic and simple with his word choices, not that I’d expect much from an economic and simple lyricist. But he is poetic, and his stories are gripping nonetheless. I’ve always loved Cash’s music, and have been particularly intrigued by his life since Walk the Line came out a few years ago, so it was only natural that I’d want to find out his side of the story. The Autobiography is not his first trip around the memoir block, nor is his side of the story completely what I expected.

It should be said that the man has a sense of humor. He remembers messing around with his famous friends like it was yesterday, and he recalls those memories with a certain fading, but charmed, voice. Reading those excerpts is probably the most pleasurable part of the book. And when topics got more serious, like that of his drug addiction, he handled it with grace and bluntness. I only wish he would have talked more about his relationship with June Carter, for the sake of what I’m certain is worldwide curiosity, but I can understand why he’d want to keep those matters private.

But about two-thirds of the way through the book, Cash started in with the Jesus talk. I wasn’t really expecting it from him, because he’s so casual in his storytelling style, and so generally accepting of different experiences, and so obviously tranquil as he was writing the book, yet the Praise of the Lord basically smacked me in the face. It’s not that he was proselytizing; in fact, he made a point of specifically not doing that. It’s just that… he wouldn’t shut up about it. He devoted chapters and chapters to his faith, and it got redundant very quickly. It also changed my viewpoint of him, and of the way artists present themselves in general. I like to think that art is an extension of the artist, and in some cases that applies to Johnny Cash, but there are some things he sings about that just aren’t true, which he readily admits to. His prison songs aren’t based on several-year stints in maximum-security prisons, and he’s not as much of a deviant as you would think. At the time the book was published, he was relatively reformed and straight-laced, and insistent upon bearing his testimony to anyone who would listen. It’s too bad you can’t block out the noise of a book.

I’m not necessarily willing to forgive this literary transgression, but I will say that I enjoyed reading the book. The best way to hear about an artist is directly from them, even if they aren’t the best prose composers. And The Autobiography sure gives a hefty amount of insight into the Man in Black. You just get an extra dosage of The Man, too.