Southern Culture on the Skids

A new autobiography tells how Johnny Cash has walked the line for a disappearing country--and how that line may end with him.

Questions of quality aside, however, so-called "alternative country," which fetishizes the authenticity that Cash certainly owns, would seem more guilty in this regard than the Music City professionals that Cash is admonishing. For all of the sparkling pick-up trucks and 100-gallon cowboy hats, Nashville really makes no attempt to disguise its embrace of upward mobility and suburban banality. As for alt. country: If there's a clearer case of a kind of music producing a way or life, rather than a way of life producing a kind of music, I haven't seen it.

Which is not to say that Cash's persona is entirely authentic, if that term still has any relevance in the realm of pop culture. Kris Kristofferson (the Rhodes scholar and '70s sex-symbol) once described Cash as "a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction," and there's plenty in Cash to dispel any romanticized notions of the Man in Black. As Cash reveals, philosophy had almost nothing to do with the namesake get-up of the Man in Black; instead, Cash and his first band, too broke to afford suits, wore black as the only matching color in everyone's closet. And the man who is justly famous for his live prison albums and convict songs, has, contrary to popular belief, never served a single day in jail.

As for Cash's connection to the common man--well, he's not in Arkansas any more. Much of Cash is written from Cinnamon Hill, a family estate in Jamaica (once owned by the family of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning), a well-fortified Third World vacation home that, in Cash's own words, has survived slave rebellions. Cash casually mentions breakfast being served by his "Jamaican staff," and some passages about Cinnamon Hill border on the ridiculous.

"The guards aren't family," writes the man "who wears black for the poor and beaten down/living in the hopeless, hungry side of town." "But I trust the private security company they work for. One call to their headquarters from the walkie-talkie I keep at my bedside, and we could have an army up here."

Not just could have, actually; after an admittedly fearsome-sounding robbery, it seems the Jamaican Prime Minister ordered fully armed units of the Jamaican Defense Force into the woods around the house until Cash and family returned to their safe North American home. The robbers, Cash later discovered, were hunted down and killed by the government. A bit of "unofficially sanctioned summary justice in the Third World" that Cash expresses great ambivalence about.

But perhaps now is not the time to quibble. For Cash, to his credit, owns up to any contradictions between the life he's led and the image he's cultivated. And though he wastes pages praising the talents of his kids and grandchildren, and offering his nonperceptions into the character of all of the presidents he's met, there is an extent to which Cash's legacy is one of a nation. In one fascinating passage, for instance, Cash recounts intercepting Russian Morse code in his days as an Air Force radio operator, and finding himself as the first American to learn of Stalin's death. And now, if accounts are accurate, Cash's road from the dirt of Dyess to the seclusion of Cinnamon Hill may itself be winding down.

Yet Cash leaves a recorded legacy without parallel, and a self-mythology that is bound to endure. And in Cash, the man who has long worn his own mourning clothes offers a darkly comic metaphor for the persistence of dead country legends in the funeral and cremation of singer Faron Young: "Just as the ashes emerged from the urn, at exactly the crucial moment, a sudden gust of wind came up and blew them back into the yard toward the mourners. There they were with Faron on their faces, Faron on their coats, Faron on their shoes, Faron in their hair. Later, when I came home and got in my car, I found I had Faron on my windshield, too. I turned the wipers on. There he went, back and forth, back and forth, until he was all gone."

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