Country Boy: The Roots of Johnny Cash

My second book is out! The product of ten years of researching and writing, it’s available for less than $25 on Amazon and at the University of Arkansas Press site. I hope you will buy it and enjoy it.

The book began in Little Rock back in 2012. At the time, I was an archivist at the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture. I hadn’t been in Arkansas long, but I know I wanted to start work on another book. I was in the home stretch of completing my first book, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War. The book wasn’t out yet, but I had passed the peer-review and was cutting it down to size for final publication. I wanted to get started on something else.

Not long after working at UALR, I discovered interesting material in the archives. One was a picture of Johnny Cash. Just a head shot (below). It didn’t have any information on the back about where it was taken or when. I assumed it had something to do with Arkansas, but what?

Cash at Cummins prison farm, 1969 April

I didn’t now much about Cash. I had seen Walk the Line, read his second autobiography, and had a terrific three-disc collection of his Columbia era music, which also had the best of his Sun Records material. I knew Cash was from Arkansas. Maybe I could write about him?

I had help in the Winthrop Rockefeller Collection. This is the largest collection at UALR. It has tons of personal letters between Rockfeller and others as well as reel to reel audio and video. After spending time working in the Rockefeller papers, I learned about Cash’s concert at Cummins prison in 1969. It was the only time he played for prisoners in his home state. The concert became a centerpiece of Country Boy.

But other stories emerged. The prison farms were fascinating and horrifying in equal measure and should be the subject of its own book one day. Maybe I’ll write it? In any case, at the time I started work on Cash, I was discovering more and more about what he had done in Arkansas. I can’t think of many musical figures who had such a close connection to where they grew up. Certainly not Elvis or the Beatles. Bruce Springsteen, maybe? Dolly and Willie come to mind. But none of their stories in their home state can compare to the Cummins concert or the time in Fayetteville in 1968, when Cash took a guitarist out of the crowd and let him play a set. That guitarist was Bob Wootton, an Arkansan who ended up touring with Cash for 30 years.

Back in 2012, I knew nothing about how Cash’s hometown of Dyess was a creature of the New Deal, a government-sponsored community that provides farmers with a new home and cotton land. While Cash said he grew up under “socialism,” it wasn’t that exactly. Farmers who didn’t work, didn’t eat. Nothing was free. And like the New Deal generally, the cult of rugged individualism was strong. Life in Dyess wasn’t always great, but the Cashes made it through the Great Depression and World War II more easily than many people in the South. Most important, it was in Dyess that Cash learned to love music.

My book combines biography, social history, and music criticism in its examination of Cash and his days in Arkansas. Along the way, I dispel some myths surrounding the Man in Black. Despite Cash’s popularity, there aren’t many scholarly books about him. That has changed in the past fifteen years, especially after his death in 2003. But in many ways, you have to write like you are the first person to ever do research on Cash. You can’t assume what he said about himself was true. Myths are out there, some of his own making. And as is true of any myth, people will want to believe despite the evidence.

Even more important, I wanted to write about Arkansas the way Cash would have. Something of a love letter, but also a realistic assessment of his time and place. We all come from somewhere. We all live in a particular historical context. Cash was no different. By looking at is life, we get the story of a gifted and immensely popular artist, but also one who can tell us about the times he lived in, whether its the Great Depression, Cold War, or the Vietnam era. Cash’s music might be timeless. He often acted like someone from the 19th century. But he was of a generation of musicians that came together–miraculously–at Sun in the mid-1950s to make the music that became rock and roll.

I also wanted to write a book that appeals to any level of Cash fan. Yes, it’s published at a university press. But I wanted to avoid all academic jargon and getting too deep into the historiography. I am not writing for tenure or worried about reviews in academic journals. I am certainly not the first person to write on Cash in a scholarly way, but I wanted all people to enjoy reading the book–not just college students or professors. I hope I have done Cash and his fans proud.

These links will take you to where you can buy the book:

You can also hear my discuss the book here:

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