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Memories of Cash? Priceless

Music critic Robert Hilburn, who had long friendship with the Man in Black, will sign books at Laguna Playhouse.

January 14, 2014|By Jonny Whiteside
  • Singer Johnny Cash.
Singer Johnny Cash. (Los Angeles Times…)

Johnny Cash was more than a country music star. He was a social crusader, international ambassador, spiritual seeker and full-time entertainer.

Ten years after his death, he remains a force so compelling that the Laguna Playhouse is presenting not one but two events focused on the Man in Black.

Saturday's Cash-a-thon features a performance of "Ring of Fire," a musical that features almost 30 Cash hits, preceded by a visit from former Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn, author of the recent biography "Johnny Cash: The Life." Hilburn, who will discuss the book, sign copies and take questions, is no mere posthumous tale-teller.

"The first time I saw Johnny Cash was New Year's Eve in 1959 or 1960," he said. "He was doing the 'Town Hall Party' [TV show], so I went down to Compton to see him. I had already heard him on the radio — they played 'Folsom Prison Blues' — and I'll never forget it because the line 'I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die' was shocking.

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"I went to a local record store, and when I found out he was on Sun Records, I immediately added Cash to my standing order of records to buy."

Hilburn was the only journalist present at Cash's historic 1968 Folsom Prison concert and enjoyed a long personal history with the singer.

"With a lot of artists who you interview again and again, you get to know them, but you don't really hang out with them." Hilburn said. "It's like being friends from a distance. But some you do get closer to over the years, and with John, I did.

"He was a meaningful artist, like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, someone who you just know people will continue listening to, and so I did interview him many times over the years, maybe 15 times between the Folsom Prison concert and the last one just a week before he died."

Cash, who rose from poverty in Depression-era Dyess, Ark., saw his popularity explode in the late 1960s — with his "At Folsom Prison" album, Cash was outselling the Beatles. The singer's unusual mixture of bare-bones, heavily rhythmic country, socially aware lyrics and rich baritone earned him wide acclaim: induction into both the Country Music and Rock and Roll halls of fame, multiple Grammy, Country Music Assn. and Academy of Country Music awards and dozens of hit songs.

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