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Capturing Cash

Biographer knows his subject, fills in gaps about ‘Man in Black.’

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Johnny Cash: The Biography
By Michael Streissguth, Da Capo Press, hardcover, $26.

The biggest problem with autobiographies is the most obvious: They’re written by their subjects.

Given that writing an autobiography might be the ultimate display of both arrogance and narcissism (an act that assumes, first, that people WANT to read about you; and, second, that you actually know what your life so far has been all about), they’re often heir to all the failings of the arrogant and narcissistic: puffing up the good parts, leaving out the bad parts, switching and changing and making chop suey out of a perfectly good life. The results — depending on how honest the writer can be with him or herself — mostly range from so-so to out-and-out fiction.

What I’m saying is: God bless the biographers.

In his new book “Johnny Cash: The Biography,” author Michael Streissguth fills in many of the gaps left by the three autobiographies Cash wrote in his lifetime. Drawing on historical documents, interviews with Cash confidantes and family members, and Cash’s own inter-views and writings, Streissguth breaks through the carefully polished shell that Johnny Cash built around his emotional and personal life.

Streissguth is no stranger to the terrain. Two of his previous books, “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece,” and “Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader,” attempted to chip away at the Cash mystique. Here, Streissguth turns his full attention to Cash’s emotional clockworks, going back to the Cash family tree in dirt-poor Arkansas and trying to figure Johnny Cash out from the roots up. Some of the most interesting passages in the book actually take place before Cash was born, in which Streissguth puzzles out the sometimes-strained relationship between Johnny’s father, Ray — a sharecropper prone to drink in the midst of the Great Depression — and Ray’s older brother, Dave, a large-scale farmer and the political boss of Cleveland County. Particularly interesting is the link Streissguth makes between the Cash family’s fateful move to a WPA settlement at Dyess, Ark., and a fire at Dave Cash’s farm, which destroyed much of his crop and would have severely hindered his ability to provide handouts to Ray’s struggling family. Streissguth’s conclusion is that Dave pulled political strings to make sure Ray and his family were one of two families from the county who were picked for the experimental community at Dyess.

Also of interest in the book are Streissguth’s attempts at reconstructing the relationship between Ray and Johnny Cash. Cash’s autobiographies often glossed over the relationship, but Streissguth’s interviews with Cash friends and family finds a little powder keg of disappointment and maybe even childhood abuse that simmered between the two all their lives, possibly leading to some of the demons Johnny Cash struggled with over the years.

Streissguth has done the good work of biography, refusing to become intoxicated by the charisma and charm of his subject. Diving beyond the gloss of Cash’s life, the man Streissguth finds turns out to be much more vulnerable than the mythical “Man in Black” persona Cash cultivated during his career. The truth of Cash as seen in Streissguth’s book is a sometimes depressed and world-weary pilgrim who often struggled with a violent and meager upbringing, addiction and his own faith. In the end, Streissguth makes it clear that Cash led a life that was as interesting and full of emotion as the best of his songs.


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