Book Review: Phases and Stages

Sheet Music

Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader

edited by Michael Streissguth

Da Capo Press, 352 pp., $26 It's a challenge writing about country music and its practitioners. Like soul and blues, it's something that comes from the heart, and at its best, manages to sum up complex emotions and thoughts in a fairly direct and plainspoken way. Magazines like Rolling Stone and even No Depression too often scrutinize the music and its motive so closely that they suffer from what a friend calls "analysis paralysis." The best of Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader is the material that doesn't parse the man and his music into tiny little bits. The most revealing segments are direct interviews with Cash from Penthouse and Country Music Magazine; Q&As from the Seventies with Patrick Carr, in which Cash talks readily about his druggy years; and straightforward news pieces from The New York Times, Chicago Reader, and the Tennessean. It's when scribes like Nick Tosches, Alanna Nash, and Mary Dickie begin indulging their rock-writer flourishes that things start getting a little weighty. Sure, John R. Cash's brooding image and dark talent make him an intriguing figure, but on the other hand, his own words carry enough weight to make slice-and-dice microscopy redundant. That said, the more matter-of-fact segments address the Man in Black's hardscrabble beginnings in Depression-era Arkansas and the death of his brother and hero Jack as major formative experiences in Cash's life, while putting a new perspective on his place in rock and country history as one of the originators of the Sun Records sound. Fittingly, Carr's conversations with the man also discuss his relationship with friend and kindred spirit, the late Waylon Jennings. With Cash celebrating his 70th year, it's high time for a comprehensive anthology of essays and interviews about him. Ring of Fire is a good one with a fair amount of fresh insights on his life and career, albeit weighted with a few too many wordy musings.

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