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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Music historian John Alexander authors comprehensive Johnny Cash 'discographic biography'

Johnny Cash

John Alexander's "The Man in Song" (University of Arkansas Press)

Music journalist and historian John Alexander’s decades of involvement with the music of Johnny Cash has resulted in a new book focusing on the songs that the Man in Black wrote and recorded, and placing them in a biographical context.

Alexander’s comprehensive The Man in Song—A Discographic Biography of Johnny Cash (to be published April 16 by University of Arkansas Press) covers all the classics like “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ring of Fire” and “Hurt.” But it also talks about “noteworthy songs that people may not be familiar with,” says Alexander, like “I Still Miss Someone”—“arguably one of Cash’s greatest compositions”--“Any Old Wind That Blows,” “Far Side Banks of Jordan,” and “Melva’s Wine.”

The book’s structure, meanwhile, breaks down into chapters focusing on autobiographical, geographical, societal and story songs; historic periods like Cash’s breakout Sun Records years and final American Recordings output; gospel songs and songs of personal conviction; the legendary prison recordings and concept albums; songs by heroes and influences like Hank Williams and Bob Dylan, and great singer-songwriters like Kris Kristofferson; collaborations with artists including Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson; and deep catalog cuts and rarities.

Altogether The Man in Song sheds “a totally different light on [Cash] than I have ever seen before,” writes country artist and Cash friend Larry Gatlin in the foreword, further hailing it as “a masterpiece, written by a learned historian and renowned musicologist—and an expert on Johnny Cash and his music.”

Currently senior editor at The Brooklyn Eagle and operator of his Alexander Records digital music compilations website, Alexander long served as senior music editor at Reader’s Digest, where he featured Cash in many of his themed box set song anthologies.

“There have been great biographies written about Johnny Cash,” says Alexander, “and Larry Gatlin said it best: ‘The world does not need another of those.’ But to me it was always all about the songs with Cash, so readers will hopefully get a better understanding of his life and what he stood for through his songs. I’ve always looked for a book like this, and when I couldn’t find one I suppose I was motivated to write it.”

But The Man in Song, the author continues, “has been a long time coming.”

“I’ve been a Johnny Cash fan since I was a young boy,” says Alexander. “I remember running home from school to secretly play my Johnny Cash albums while my friends were listening to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. He made me fall in love with country and folk music, and for me it was all about the songs he wrote and recorded.”

He recalls producing several Cash box sets at Reader’s Digest, including the three-disc The Legendary Johnny Cash.

“While working on it, he asked if he could select some of the songs! Of course I said yes, and suggested we call one of the discs Johnny Cash’s Personal Favorites. We had many discussions and he preferred we not call it that because he did not want to offend the songwriters whose songs were not included. We ultimately decided on Among Johnny Cash’s Personal Favorites, and I got to spend time with Johnny--and [wife] June--certainly one of the milestones of my life.”

Alexander also credits Cash with “opening up a new world for me and leading me to discover so many great songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Larry Gatlin, Gordon Lightfoot, Harlan Howard, Tim Hardin. But he was also an incredible writer himself, and I wanted to examine his life through the songs he wrote or chose to record. And the stories behind songs like ‘The Gambler,’ and ‘City of New Orleans’--songs he didn't write and could have laid claim to but did not--I always found fascinating.”

Alexander singles out songwriter Allen Reynolds, Gatlin and Rosanne Cash—“one of the finest singer-songwriters in any genre of music, who was kind enough to help clarify some things for me”—among his key sources.

“My one regret is that I had arranged for an interview with [Cash songwriter and producer] Jack Clement, who factored so much in almost every phase of Cash’s life, but unfortunately he passed away before we could talk. His impact on Cash’s career cannot be overemphasized.”

Alexander now hopes that his book will encourage people to view Cash’s life through his recordings, “maybe go back and find the songs or albums discussed and listen to them either for the first time or with fresh ears. And if anyone’s not familiar with Kristofferson’s ‘Love is the Way,’ Gatlin’s ‘Help Me,’ and especially Rosanne’s ‘September When It Comes,’ maybe this book will help introduce them to some of Cash’s greatest underrated recordings.”



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