Johnny Cash (Hardcover)

The Life and Legacy of the Man in Black

By Alan Light

Smithsonian Books, 9781588346391, 216pp.

Publication Date: October 30, 2018

List Price: 40.00*
* Individual store prices may vary.


An illustrated biography of Johnny Cash that tells his life story through never-before-seen personal photographs and memorabilia from the Cash family

Johnny Cash: The Life and Legacy of the Man in Black is a Cash biography like no other. It reveals Cash's personal and professional life through largely unpublished material from the Cash family, including his handwritten notes and set lists; personal photographs of Cash with his family, traveling, and performing onstage; and beloved objects from his home and private recording studio. Alan Light, one of America's leading music journalists, traces Cash's story from his origins in rural Arkansas to his early recordings with Sun Records; from his battles with drug dependency and divorce to his romance with June Carter; and from his commercial musical successes, including At Folsom Prison and American Recordings, to his death and legacy. The book also includes vignettes on four sustaining themes of Cash's life: his musical influences, his social justice advocacy, his relationship with June, and his religious beliefs. Rich and revealing, Johnny Cash: The Life and Legacy of the Man in Black is ideal for all those who want to learn more about the personal side of the beloved performer.

About the Author

ALAN LIGHT has been one of America's leading music journalists for the past twenty years. He was a writer at Rolling Stone, founding music editor and editor-in-chief of Vibe, and editor-in-chief of Spin magazine. He has been a contributor to the New Yorker, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, Elle, and Mother Jones. He is the author of The Skills to Pay the Bills, an oral history of the Beastie Boys, and The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah"; and cowriter of the New York Times-bestselling memoir by Gregg Allman, My Cross to Bear.

Praise For Johnny Cash: The Life and Legacy of the Man in Black

Johnny gets the spotlight in Alan Light’s The Life and Legacy of The Man in Black


A profusely illustrated volume documents a celebrated performer's struggles and hard-won triumphs.Veteran music journalist Light (What Happened Miss Simone?: A Biography, 2016, etc.) offers an admiring yet cleareyed biography of Johnny Cash (1932-2003), a composer, singer, and guitar player who crossed many genres. Though associated mainly with country, in 1992, when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cash acknowledged a wide range of influences, including Alan Lomax's field recordings of hill country music, Hank Williams, and gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Cash's cultural contributions went beyond music; he was also an actor, writer (of two autobiographies and a novel), and social and political activist. "You could guide your ship by him," his friend Bob Dylan said. "Listen to him an d he always brings you to your senses." Cash made his first major concert appearance in 1955, opening for Elvis Presley in Memphis; "Cash don't have to move a muscle, he just sings and stands there," Presley remarked. "The whole world will know Johnny Cash." His early recordings—"Folsom Prison" and "I Walk the Line"—were immediate hits, topping country and pop charts. But neither his career nor his personal life was smooth. Married with four children, he fell in love with singer June Carter and desperately wanted his Catholic wife to agree to a divorce. In the 1960s, he descended into alcoholism and drugs, "gobbling amphetamines at a ferocious pace." During a seven-year period, he found himself in jail seven times for drug-related offenses. Throughout the book, Light interrupts the chronology of Cash's life with "spotlights," concise essays on four themes: musical influences, social concerns, marriage to June (complex, tense, and often volatile), and religion (he was a good friend of Billy Graham). The author draws on Cash's autobiographies, music history and criticism, interviews, and writings by Cash's family to produce an intimate and engaging portrait. By far the greatest strength of the book, though, are the illustrations: memorabilia from family archives and abundant photographs that capture Cash's undeniable charisma. A treat for the Man in Black's many fans.


Working with the Cash family, Light (The Holy or the Broken) has gathered hundreds of never-before-seen photographs, lyric sheets, posters, and other artifacts from the Johnny Cash archives to produce this stunning and lavishly illustrated biography of the Man in Black. Light begins with Cash’s early life: his birth in poverty in Arkansas; the death of his 15-year-old brother Jack in a table saw accident; and his first marriage, at age 22 to Vivian Liberto. From there, Light charts Cash’s rise to fame, including his early years at Sun Studios in Memphis, his marriage to June Carter Cash, his studio and TV career, and his drug and alcohol abuse. Light reveals Cash’s deep commitment to social justice, noting that the song “Man in Black” and the black clothes Cash wore were a protest against the dire treatment of, in Cash’s words, “the ones who are held back.” Light also writes about the musician’s deep Christian beliefs and his novel about Paul the Apostle, The Man in White, through which Cash revealed his own struggle with faith. The volume’s images stand out: in a spread, Light reproduces Cash’s handwritten notes on his family history, including a reference to the fact that he was born on Buffalo Bill’s birthday; Cash’s irrepressible laugh is captured in a 1962 photo of him with two fishing buddies. Light’s rich collection of photos and narrative bring Cash to life.

“There can never be another Johnny Cash. With close-up images and the big-picture story, this book offers new insight into the life of an American hero.” Sheryl Crow

“This resonant book offers far more than an overview of Johnny Cash’s life and legacy: it gets to the very essence of who he was and what his life and music mean. Light’s text reads beautifully and stands as an ideal complement to photos that inspire reveries about the works and days of this extraordinary artist.” Anthony DeCurtis, author of Lou Reed: A Life

“‘Johnny Cash was like Abraham Lincoln to me,’ John Prine once said. We all agreed, though if Prine had said the same of Elvis or Sinatra, we wouldn’t have, because it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of sense. But with Cash it did. He was a man, an idea, a morality, a way of looking at the world. Though wrapped in contradictions, Cash always stood tall, like he’d come out of the soil, one of nature’s inevitabilities. This book gives us an intimacy with the man. And that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating.” Warren Zanes, author of Petty: The Biography