Stephen Miller's new biography, Johnny Cash: The Life of an American Icon, puts solid flesh, blood, sweat and wrinkles on the musician I thought I knew. Johnny Cash, sharecropper's son! Johnny Cash, champion in black. Johnny Cash, entertainer. Johnny Cash, hellraiser! Johnny Cash the spiritual. Johnny Cash, lesbian icon.
Four hundred and eight tightly-printed pages of extensive episodes reveal fascinating aspects of the man, his life and music that even my whacked-out imagination had never considered. When it comes to Cash lore, Miller's biography is paydirt. There's enough material in there for any nut to dig out something that will please them.
The story of how a struggling Rhodes Scholar named Kris Kristofferson landed a National Guard helicopter at the Cash ranch to give Johnny a beer and a demo tape is famous. But I had never known that Johnny also went out of his way to give a shot to the Statler Brothers, Larry Gatlin, and several other unknowns who were less able to withstand the rigors of success. I had heard of 1956 "Million Dollar Quartet" afternoon when Johnny jammed with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins at Sam Phillips' Sun Studios, but I had never known that Johnny was closer to Bob Dylan than Boxcar Willie.
Dense with detail, Johnny Cash is a long, rich read. Hundreds of incidents, interviews, tour busses and hotel rooms, deeds, prayers, producers, films, albums and concerts. The research is immense. In telling the stories behind the songs, Stephen Miller reveals the story behind the man. The book is not afraid to criticize, either. This is not a glowing or idealized Johnny Cash. This is more than a ring of fire and a boy named Sue. Johnny Cash: The Life of an American Icon is the flesh and the blood, the sweat and the wrinkles.