CMT.com has a preview of the first chapter of the biography Johnny Cash: The Life by music journalist and Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn. The book hits stores October 29.
The two-and-a-half-mile walk from the Cash family’s five-room, federally assisted farmhouse in rural Dyess, Arkansas, to the town center was just long enough for young J.R. to work up a head full of dreams. For years, the third son of Ray and Carrie Cash walked the narrow gravel road with his schoolboy pals, all of them fantasizing about being cowboy movie stars like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. But J.R. most enjoyed walking the road alone, especially at night, when the darkness felt like a shield against the rest of the world, leaving him free to pursue a dream that was far more important than he wanted to admit.
On those nights, J.R. would frequently sing to himself, he later told friends when reminiscing about his childhood days, partially to calm his nerves when he heard the rustling of cottonmouth snakes in the grass or the howl of prowling panthers in the woods a few hundred yards away. Years later, some of J.R.’s old chums and even his younger sister Joanne chuckled at the idea of panthers in the woods. Snakes, yes — maybe even an occasional bobcat — but no one knew anything about panthers. “He had a real vivid imagination,” says A. J. Henson, who sometimes walked that gravel road with his friend. Even Cash himself often admitted that he never let facts interfere with a good story. But as Joanne put it, there’s no doubting one thing about the Dyess years: J.R. loved to sing. There was something about music that was even more magical to him than movies, a fascination that came naturally. His family, especially his mother, had always turned to songs for comfort and inspiration. Soon after he started grade school, J.R. knew he wanted to be a singer on the radio, and he began to think of that gravel road at night as his own secret stage. When he was feeling especially good, he’d stop after a song, look up at the Arkansas moon, and take a bow.
Read more of the first chapter from Johnny Cash: The Life at CMT.com.