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Nine Choices

Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Nine Choices
    Book Description:

    For much of his career, Johnny Cash opened his shows with the tagline, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” This introduction seemed unnecessary, since everyone in the audience knew who he was—the famous musical artist whose career spanned almost five decades, whose troubled life on and off the stage received wide publicity, and whose cragged face seemed to express a depth and intensity not found in any other artist, living or dead. For Cash, as for many celebrities, renown was the product of both hard work and luck. Often a visionary and always a tireless performer, he was subject to a whirlwind of social, economic, and cultural countercurrents. Nine Choices explores the tension between Cash’s desire for mainstream success, his personal struggles with alcohol and drugs, and an everchanging cultural landscape that often circumscribed his options. Drawing on interviews, archival research, and textual analysis, Jonathan Silverman focuses on Cash’s personal and artistic choices as a way of understanding his life, his impact on American culture, and the ways in which that culture in turn shaped him. Cash made decisions about where he would live, what he would play, who would produce his albums, whether he would support the Vietnam War, and even if he would flip his famous “bird”—the iconic image of Cash giving the finger which is now plastered on posters and Tshirts everywhere—in the context of cultural forces both visible and opaque. He made other decisions in consultation with a variety of people, many of whom were chiefly concerned with the reaction of his audiences. Less a conventional biography than a study of the making of an identity, Nine Choices explores how Johnny Cash sought to define who he was, how he was perceived, and what he signified through a series of selfconscious actions. The result, Silverman shows, was a life that was often tumultuous but never uninteresting.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-043-7
    Subjects: Music, History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
    (pp. vii-xiv)
    (pp. 1-34)

    “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” For twenty five years of his performing life, and even at the height of his fame, Johnny Cash greeted his fans with this phrase.¹ Given his popularity, one might think that his self-referential opening line was superfluous. But given a career that took so many turns and engaged so many audiences, perhaps he did need to reintroduce himself at every step.

    Almost everyone knows him as the singer of “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” and “Ring of Fire.” Most readers probably know the movieWalk the Line(2005), the engaging but problematic portrayal of...

    (pp. 35-64)

    After years of touring, Johnny Cash claimed to know the country so well that he could “wake up anywhere in the United States, glance out the bus window, and pinpoint my position to within five miles. . . . I don’t think talent has anything to do with it. I think it’s just lots and lots of experience. Like the song says, I’ve been everywhere, man. Twice.”¹ Though one must acknowledge the playful tone in which Cash described this feat, it nonetheless was a claim for authenticity: such ability, gained through experience, gave him legitimacy as a chronicler of American...

    (pp. 65-91)

    During a tour out West in the 1950s, Johnny Cash was asked by fellow Sun Records musician Bill Justis, author of the instrumental hit “Raunchy,” to help distribute his records. Cash says the band “stopped at a beautiful scenic overlook on Mt. Hood and distributed those big, brittle old 78s by hand, one by one. They flew really well,” he said. “That record became a hit, too; we were always proud of being the first to distribute it.”¹

    Such was the state of music organization in the 1950s, when independents in the country, rock, and rhythm and blues genres were...

    (pp. 92-108)

    Johnny Cash’s connections to prison began with a bit of larceny, one that was not uncovered until some years later. His “Folsom Prison Blues” is a rewrite of “Crescent City Blues” by Gordon Jenkins, the tune itself borrowed liberally from a 1930s instrumental “Crescent City Blues” recorded by Little Brother Montgomery.¹ Though “Folsom Prison Blues” takes its melody and the lyrical framework from “Crescent City Blues,” Cash was inspired by a movie and not a particularly good one.Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison(1951) was written and directed by Crane Wilbur, a Hollywood studio presence who also directed some...

    (pp. 109-130)

    When Johnny Cash first met June Carter at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956, he predicted, “You and I are going to get married someday.”

    She laughed, “Really?”


    “Well, good,” she said. “I can’t wait.”¹

    In this conversation, a number of things are on display—Cash’s bluntness (and humor), Carter’s humor (and humility), and a meta-discourse about marriage that seems spooky given their ultimate nuptials. At the time, Carter and Cash were both married to other people, yet they ended up together in a long-lasting marriage that at least to many observers appeared happy. The conversation also demonstrates that...

    (pp. 131-146)

    In 1969, Johnny Cash told the story about his involvement in the Vietnam War in front of an enthusiastic crowd at Madison Square Garden. He recounted a conversation he had with a reporter after returning from visiting troops in Vietnam. “That makes you a hawk, doesn’t it?” asked the reporter. Cash told the audience that he answered, “‘No, no, that don’t make me a hawk.’ But I said if you watch the helicopters bring in the wounded boys, and then you go into the wards and sing for ’em and try and do your best to cheer ’em up, so...

  10. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 147-170)

    During the taping for television of,The Johnny Cash Show, Cash used to like to have the cue cards held upside down, according to Chance Martin, his lighting director during the 1970s. Turning the cards upside down was a way to tease the producers about their nervousness over allowing a relative amateur to host a show and, according to Martin, a sign of the tension never fully resolved between Cash and the producers. “Hollywood wanted a certain type,” Martin said, that type being a more mainstream than country-oriented artist.¹ Viewers, however, do not notice this tension; they see a show...

    (pp. 171-198)

    At about the same time that Johnny Cash released his comeback album with Rick Rubin in 1994, he put out the CD version of another large project—a sixteen-volume recording of the New Testament with the noted religious publisher Thomas Nelson. The timing of the two projects typified Cash’s life after his religious reawakening. He traveled two distinct but overlapping paths: one devoted to popular music and the other to religion. He chose this religious path more than once—in 1959 when he released his first gospel album for Columbia, and again when he renewed his faith in the 1970s....

    (pp. 199-226)

    In 1993, at the now departed Rhythm Café, a dinner theater in Santa Ana, California, Rick Rubin approached Johnny Cash, wondering if Cash would consider recording with him. There was some hesitation on both ends—Cash called his daughter, Rosanne Cash, who knew more about Rubin than he did; and Rubin consulted Tom Petty, who was a bridge between all sorts of musicians and genres.¹ Both Rosanne and Petty urged Cash and Rubin to work together, and so a partnership, one that accrued benefits for both sides, was forged despite differences in age, in faith, and, arguably, in genre.


    (pp. 227-240)

    Almost a year to the day after Johnny Cash died, Sotheby’s held an auction for his estate, an elaborate affair that featured not only the sale of Cash and Carter’s possessions but also an accompanying exhibit. Cash was not the first celebrity to have his materials auctioned off at Sotheby’s, the most famous perhaps being Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1996, whose sale became a national story.¹ Unlike Jackie O, however, whose son and daughter arranged for her auction after she passed away, Johnny and June Carter Cash had planned to hold theirs before they died, hoping to sell off a...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 241-266)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 267-278)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 279-280)