Ring of Fire: The Johny Cash Reader
Right of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader
Michael Streissguth, editor
Da Capo Press, 2002
I found Ring of Fire on a remainder table in a bookstore in DC last week. I ended up reading in a single sitting on the bus ride home. It's primarily a compilation of music journalism with interspersed with excerpts from memoirs and biographies.
One of the strongest contributions is an excerpt from Christopher Wren's 1971 biography Winners got Scars: Too about Cash's hometown of Dyess, Arkansas. Dyess, originally Colonization Project Number One, was a WPA homesteading project to turn sharecroppers into farm owners. The WPA set up the original colony for 500 families. Colonists were issued a house, a barn, and rudimentary tools. In exchange, they cleared the surrounding land, farmed crops, and sold them through the town co-op. After a few years, the farmers had the opportunity to buy their farms from the government. Ray Cash brought his family to Dyess in 1935. By 1938 he bought his 20-acre farm from the government. Later in life, Cash would joke that he was raised under socialism.
Another great essay is a first-person account of Johnny Cash's concert at Leavenworth Prison, written by Billy Nussbaum, then an inmate doing time for bank robbery.
Ring of Fire spans Cash's entire life. The collection of articles about Rick Rubin and the American recording series is one of the strongest parts of the book.
The book strikes an excellent balance between the biographical details and the actual music. The essays are well-chosen to show how Cash's sound evolved over the course of his career. The only weak parts of the book are the very long mid-career interviews originally published in country music periodicals. As someone who unfamiliar with the industry during that period, I found it hard to put the interviews in context.
Ring of Fire would make a great stocking stuffer for a Johnny Cash fan.