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Originally published Sunday, December 15, 2013 at 3:03 AM

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‘Johnny Cash: The Life’: the true story of the Man in Black

In “Johnny Cash: The Life,” longtime rock critic Robert Hilburn chronicles the ups and downs of the life of the Man in Black, a flawed but generous figure who made an indelible imprint on American music.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Johnny Cash: The Life’

by Robert Hilburn

Little Brown, 688 pp., $32

In “Johnny Cash: The Life,” Robert Hilburn delves into how Cash could connect with so many folks, however diverse. I can attest to this.

Cash toured with Patsy Cline. He shared a bill with Rage Against the Machine. He was early rock and longtime country and, late in life, enjoyed a renaissance with a producer best known for hip-hop and heavy metal. He roomed with Waylon Jennings and rehabbed with Elizabeth Taylor.

My dad turned me on to Cash and for years, I nudged my wife to give a listen. It didn’t take. Her tastes growing up ran to Depeche Mode, The Cure and New Order. But one day she was painting a bedroom in an old house with poor ventilation, and I came home to find her listening to Cash singing “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.”

She was crying.

“It’s so beautiful,” she said.

I thanked the paint fumes and said, “Yes, it is.”

In a biography that clocks in just shy of 700 pages, Hilburn, who was a Los Angeles Times music critic for more than 30 years, brings us the Man in Black as a man in full.

He opts for straight chronological, going from Cash’s youth in Arkansas to his stint as an Air Force radio operator to his first paid gig, at a Ford dealership, on the back of a flatbed, playing “Hey, Porter” and “Cry, Cry, Cry,” over and over. He chronicles Cash’s superstar years (more than 6 million records sold in 1969), his three decades of fading sales and relevance, and his resurgent American Recordings albums with producer Rick Rubin.

Mark Romanek, director of the transcendent “Hurt” video, made late in Cash’s life, said he didn’t want “to prettify the whole thing.” He showed Cash as he was. Hilburn goes the same route, to good effect: Cash took a lot of amphetamines, he told stories that weren’t true, he trashed hotel rooms and made awful movies. He fell for “women who were off-limits,” and, early on, hurt his family.

But Cash also took stands — on behalf of Native Americans, on behalf of inmates, on behalf of the working poor.

He made brave music, he made beautiful music and he showed a generosity that could awe. Later on, he made amends with his family.

Hilburn offers up examples of Cash giving the finger — one time, in a Billboard magazine ad, literally — to the entertainment industry. “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” was written by Kris Kristofferson. When Cash performed the song on TV in 1970, an ABC rep pressured him to switch “Wishing, Lord, that I was stoned” for “Wishing, Lord, that I was home.” Cash locked eyes with Kristofferson, sitting in the balcony, and sang the words as written.

At times, Hilburn’s level of detail threatens to suffocate. And his writing never rises to fine prose. But Cash’s life and lyrics provide poetry enough.

Cash died in 2003, at the age of 71. Hilburn describes how he made some of his best music at life’s end, as his eyesight dimmed, as he lost feeling in his fingers, as he struggled to breathe. As his body failed, his music and spirit were triumphant.

To my wife’s delight, he even covered a Depeche Mode song. She kept on loving Cash, even after the paint fumes cleared.

Ken Armstrong: A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of “Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity,” winner of the Edgar Award for best fact crime book.

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