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  • Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity
  • Travis D. Stimeling
Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity. By Leigh H. Edwards. (Profiles in Popular Music.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. [xi, 241 p. ISBN 9780253352927 (hardcover), $50; ISBN 9780253220615 (paperback), $19.95.] Bibliography, index.

With the exception of Hank Williams, no country artist has been the subject of the kind of sustained critical and scholarly attention that Johnny Cash enjoyed during his nearly five decades as a leading country songwriter, artist, and spokesperson, or in the years since his death in 2003. An artist whose music frequently rejected generic boundaries between rock and roll, country, and folk, Cash has been celebrated for a perceived authenticity that is rooted at once in his Southern working class masculinity and in his refusal—both literal and figurative—to be classified. Literary scholar Leigh H. Edwards, in her recent book Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity, suggests that Cash's image as a "walkin' contradiction" (in the words of songwriter Kris Kristofferson) and his continued presence as an icon of American popular culture "illuminate key foundational contradictions in the history of American thought, particularly through his fraught constructions of a Southern white working-class masculinity" (p. 2). Skillfully blending textual analysis of Cash's lyrics, autobiographies, and public image, direct engagement with Cash's musical practices, and careful scrutiny of the complex reception that he and his work have received, Edwards successfully deconstructs Cash's ambivalence toward religion, American colonialism, and the state of the Southern white working class, and suggests that it is precisely such ambivalence that has made Cash such a powerful figure in the American popular consciousness.

Building upon the work of cultural critic Barbara Ching, who has argued that socalled "hard country" artists such as Merle Haggard, Williams, and others address the contradictions inherent in the construction of American identity, masculinity, and race (Wrong's What I Do Best: Hard Country Music and Contemporary Culture [New York: Oxford University Press, 2001]), Edwards proposes that Cash stands as a particularly rich site for the exploration of these contradictions because of "the depth of engagement he has with these themes in his work, the thoroughness with which he explores both sides of opposing forces—without collapsing familiar binaries …—and in the degree to which he incorporates that tension into his own media image" (pp. 12–13). In the subsequent chapters, Edwards examines the ways that Cash simultaneously stood as a masculine symbol while publicly critiquing commonly-held notions of white Southern working-class masculinity. She argues, therefore, that Cash struck an at once hegemonic and subaltern pose that allowed him to tackle significant social and personal issues while continuing to accrue valuable cultural capital. Chapter 1, "'What is Truth?': Authenticity and Persona," adds to an already rich literature on the value of authenticity within country music, suggesting that the simplicity of Cash's musical approach (exhibited most notably in the sound of his own voice) and the ways in which he "insists on irreducible complexity" (p. 48) in his public image allow listeners to interpret Cash as a bastion of rockist authenticity that conveniently omits the fact that the symbolic Cash was overtly mediated. In the next two chapters (" 'A Boy Named Sue': American Manhood" and "Gender and 'The Beast in Me': Ramblers and Rockabillies"), Edwards interrogates depictions of white Southern working-class masculinity in Cash's oeuvre, suggesting that "his texts establish a marginalized, working-class masculinity as defiant and critical of middle-class norms, while also considering the uncertainties of that working-class manhood" (p. 70). Moving deftly from readings of Cash's railroad, prison, and love songs and carefully articulated critiques of contemporary gender theory and country music scholarship, Edwards postulates that, rather than presenting a single unified definition of masculinity, Cash assumes dozens of masculine characters that simultaneously draw attention to their subaltern status, their desire to [End Page 305] social and economic status, and the structures that enforced their marginalization. In chapters 4 ("Race and Identity Politics") and 5 ("Man in Black: Class and National Mythologies"), Edwards investigates the ways that Cash extended this duality in efforts to champion Native American...


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