Ring Of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader
One month after his 23rd birthday, a young man stepped up to the microphone at Sun Studios in March 1955 and began to sing. By year’s end, Johnny Cash’s life would never be the same, and both country music and American popular music would be forever changed.
Nearly half a century later, Cash, now 70, is a country music superstar, a Christian, a recovering drug addict, former host of an influential TV variety show, and an advocate for the rights of prisoners and American Indians. Editor Michael Streissguth covers all these facets of the singer’s career in Ring Of Fire.
The author of biographies of Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold, Streissguth presents 33 selections, published between 1956 and 2001, by writers including Nick Tosches, Ralph J. Gleason, Alanna Nash and George Vecsey, that trace Cash’s rise from promising newcomer to elder statesman. The book offers album and concert reviews, interviews, and artist profiles.
Streissguth presents the articles chronologically, starting with Cash’s early years on his family’s Arkansas farm. Songs such as “Big River” and “Five Feet High And Rising” sprang from his childhood experiences.
Cash has been viewed as an artist who maintained his artistic integrity while enjoying commercial popularity. One reason for his success can be found in a quote from a 1975 interview with Penthouse Magazine. “I try to remember that the airwaves belong to everybody — anybody can turn on a radio — so I try not to put my music into a bag. The same is true of myself, ’cause I’ve never wanted to be put in a bag either.”
That open-mindedness has allowed him to record songs by Harlan Howard and Kris Kristofferson as well as the Rolling Stones and Soundgarden, and to befriend both Billy Graham and Ozzy Osbourne. It’s why he can sound equally at home singing “Peace In The Valley” and “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
Ring Of Fire is not a hagiography. Nash takes him to task for The Mystery Of Life, an early 1990s album. Chris Dickinson questions the merits of American Recordings, his widely acclaimed 1994 comeback CD.
The pairing of Cash and Tosches in “Chordless In Gaza: The Second Coming Of John R. Cash” is a perfect match of writer and subject. “Johnny Cash’s Best Performance Was Offstage” by Dan McCullough shows the singer’s compassion when he meets two disabled men before a 1989 show in Boston. It’s a lump-in-the-throat story worth the price of the book.