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Nine Choices

Johnny Cash and American Culture

Jonathan Silverman

Publication Year: 2010

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 ever-changing 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 T-shirts 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 self-conscious actions. The result, Silverman shows, was a life that was often tumultuous but never uninteresting.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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pp. iii

Copyright Page

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pp. iv

Table of Contents

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pp. v

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pp. vii-xi

In the spring of 2005, I took a photograph of an East Village store window, where three Johnny Cash T-shirts were prominently displayed. Surrounding them were legions of other T-shirts featuring the bands AC/ DC, Sonic Youth, Led Zeppelin, Ratt, Poison, and Metallica, among others, as well as such iconic figures as John Lennon and David Bowie...

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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...

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Chapter 1: Cash Chooses Memphis

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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...

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Chapter 2: Cash Chooses Columbia

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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...

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Chapter 3: Cash Chooses Prison

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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,”...

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Chapter 4: Cash Chooses June Carter

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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?” “Yeah.” “Well, good,” she said...

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Chapter 5: Cash Chooses (Not to Choose) Vietnam

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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...

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Chapter 6: Cash Chooses Television

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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...

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Chapter 7: Cash Chooses His Faith

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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...

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Chapter 8: Cash Chooses Rick Rubin

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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...

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Chapter 9: Cash Chooses Sotheby’s

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pp. 227-239

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...


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pp. 242-266


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pp. 267-278

Illustrations follow page 146

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pp. a-p

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760437
E-ISBN-10: 1613760434
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558498266
Print-ISBN-10: 1558498265

Page Count: 312
Illustrations: 24 illus.
Publication Year: 2010