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Johnny Cash: The Biography

By Michael Streissguth

Da Capo Press, $26.00, 320 pages (hard cover)

Reviewed by Dave Bagdade, September 2006

Find it on Amazon
Michael Streissguth's new Johnny Cash biography is billed as the "first independent, critical biography" of Cash since Christopher Wren's 1971 bio, "Winners Got Scars Too." Streissguth obviously knows his subject, having also written "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison" and edited "Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader."

He has also done considerable research, as the book is based heavily on interviews with Cash's daughters and in-laws (most notably Marty Stuart, who played with Cash on and off for almost 20 years), Marshall Grant (the last survivor of Cash's original bandmates), former manager Saul Holiff and other longtime friends and collaborators.

While Streissguth acknowledges the considerable legend, or series of legends, surrounding Cash's life and music, he also makes the effort to go well beyond the legends in order to give the reader the real story.

While Streissguth obviously feels a significant affection for his subject, he manages for the most part to avoid the sort of fawning reverence too common in music bios. Just as important, he also refrains from the other extreme, namely, a Goldman-type trashing of the man and the legend.

Although Streissguth's fandom occasionally peeks through the curtain of journalistic detachment, "Johnny Cash" is, on the whole, a fair and balanced work.

Beginning with Cash's humble Arkansas origins, Streissguth takes the reader through the many phases of the singer's life and career, the peaks and valleys, loves and losses. Certain areas - most notably, Cash's religious beliefs and struggles with addiction - come in for a more detailed examination, while others are told more generally. Streissguth's occasional habit of referring to career points out of order so as to connect them with other life events is occasionally confusing, but this is a small quibble.

Another is the fact that, even with the huge amount of Cash interview material available (most if not all of which appears in Streissguth's extensive bibliography), the events in this book are told entirely through the words of others, albeit those who were often directly involved in the events in question.

On the plus side, though, Streissguth examines areas which are not often discussed, such as Cash's Air Force career and the positive and negative aspects of his relationship with June Carter Cash. Regarding the latter, Streissguth obviously feels compelled to tell the real story in contrast to the "ride-off-into-the-sunset" ending of last year's Cash biopic, "Walk the Line."

Overall, "Johnny Cash: The Biography" is a must-read not only for those who are unfamiliar with Cash, but for those who are very familiar. While any biography that covers a 50-year career will contain some omissions, Streissguth has come up with a book which is informative, readable and a major addition to the Cash biographical library.