Journalist John Alexander may not have been in Johnny Cash’s inner circle but his sheer enthusiasm as a fan comes across as clearly as Cash’s baritone in his book about the man’s songs.
Alexander, a Brooklyn native who is senior editor at this newspaper, is no stranger to the country motif. He’s been listening and writing about country music for a long time. In the introduction to his book, The Man in Song (University of Arkansas Press, $36.95), he jokes that the milestones in his life besides marriage and having children included just getting to spend the day with Johnny Cash.
The Man In Song doesn’t try to deify Cash as the world’s best country music singer and songwriter. Instead, it strives to do something much harder.
The book is a discography, a biography and a bit of history. It strives not just to rehash popular songs but also the forgotten and impactful ones as well, while explaining them. The book includes lyrics from and discussions of Cash’s personally written songs, collaborations, co-writes, cover songs and even songs that sound like he wrote them.
For a long-time fan or a newcomer, it’s nice to see where songs veer from real life, and have context to the themes that heavily influenced Cash’s music.
Not everyone had the opportunity to sit down and share a beer with the man himself, but they can listen to his transcendent music. Anyone can tell that music was irrefutably Johnny Cash’s life. The Man in Black began performing in childhood, kicking off his recording career in the 1950s, and continued right up until two months before his death in 2003.
While some biographies of Cash are deeply informative, they read like written documentaries. The Man In Song breaks up the monotony that can come from delving into a human being’s life with vivid photos the reader can connect with and lyrics to remember.
The book covers gospel songs from the cotton fields of Cash’s youth, as well the Tennessee Two band, Cash’s beloved wife June, the Highwaymen tour band, and finally “Hurt,” his last recorded work. The rare photos and album covers, which Alexander got via his connection at Sony and Sun Records, highlight moments in Cash’s journey.
Instead of taking the chronological route, the book encompasses Cash’s entire musical life in the root themes of Cash’s life and the lives of the people around him who molded his career.
True to form as a journalist, Alexander points out when Cash poetically exaggerates or other inaccuracies in his music and his life, even pointing out that Cash’s signature look of all black, as in his famous song “The Man In Black” suggests, wasn’t something he adopted until later in his career.
“I did not want to write another biography,” said Alexander, “I wanted to do something no one had really done and that was completely examine the songs as they pertained to his life and why he wanted to record or write them. That was his legacy.”