Prof. Jonathan Silverman Wins Award for Latest Book on Cash
By Marlon Pitter
Legendary singer and songwriter Johnny Cash left an indelible mark on the music industry and American culture, blending poignant country music with rock ’n’ roll over a multidecade span that reached from the mid-1950s until his death in 2003.
With more than 11 million monthly listeners on Spotify, as well as appearances in dozens of movies and TV shows throughout his career, Cash’s legacy endures with fans around the world.
Jonathan Silverman, chair of the English department and director of the American Studies program, detailed Cash’s global fandom in his 2020 book “Johnny Cash International.” Silverman recently earned the Peggy O’Brien Book Prize from the Irish Association for American Studies for his second book on the esteemed artist. (He published “Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture” in 2010).
It wasn’t until he was earning his Ph.D. in American studies at the University of Texas at Austin that Silverman, who was not a country music fan, got interested in Cash’s music.
“Over time, I started developing an interest,” he says. “I was just curious.”
Silverman shared his perspective on Cash’s lasting popularity and how his music still impacts American culture 20 years after his death.
Q: What sparked your interest in Johnny Cash?
A: I didn't really like country music, and I noticed my friends liked him. I started listening to him, and I said, “Oh, he's country, but not really country.” He has sort of a country voice, but he has a broader array of musical genres associated with him. That was the beginning, but the thing that really kicked it off was in 1994 when he recorded an album (“American Recordings”) with Rick Rubin, who's best known for being a rap producer.
Then I read his autobiography, and his autobiography is really interesting. It's a very smart book. Rarely do you read an autobiography that is so candid about his instability. That's really where I became interested in him. I was always a music fan, but never a music scholar, so that was sort of a jump for me.
Q: What were the differences between the writing processes for each of your Johnny Cash books?
A: The first one (“Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture”) was my first single-authored monograph, so it was something that I did on my own. I had people reading it as I went along and got feedback at various times, but basically, it was a solo effort, and it was really just about him. It was about his life, and there was some stuff about his international work, but mostly it was just about his life as a recording artist in the United States.
The second one (“Johnny Cash International”) was a full collaboration with Michael Hinds (an associate professor of English at Dublin City University), and we wrote all of it together. We wrote separate chapters, but we heavily edited each other's work.
It is more about his fans and the reach he has throughout the world. There is a (trend) in American Studies to try to have more connections to international culture, but I have to say I wasn't really conscious of that when I was writing it. It's mostly that this book was really interesting. This idea of following an American icon around the world was really appealing to me because I'm always interested in the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world.
Q: You and your coauthor recently received an award from the Irish Association for American Studies for “Johnny Cash International.” What was that like?
A: My co-author and I worked on that book, and it came out during COVID. It came out in June 2020, so we never really had any way of celebrating its publication. I did quite a few readings for the first Johnny Cash book. We couldn't really have anything (for “Johnny Cash International”), so it was nice to be able to celebrate something that we really spent a lot of time on and have others recognize it as something that was valuable and useful for them. Scholarly books tend to be purchased by libraries and used for research, so it's nice when a bigger audience finds it and enjoys it.
Q: What can students in American studies take from learning about Johnny Cash?
A: In American studies, one approach is to find something you're interested in and then try to put that particular person, movement, movie, novel or memoir in some sort of context. That's always been true for me. I always wanted to know why something exists at a particular time.
One of the first American studies projects I did was about baseball, and I needed to know a lot about American baseball history to really understand the literature of baseball. To understand Johnny Cash, I need to understand the history of music. I need to understand a little bit about the politics of the ’50s and ’60s. I need to know something about how the music business operates. I need to know about the Vietnam War, about television. For “Johnny Cash International,” I needed to know, “How did Johnny Cash's music get into various places?”
American studies is really a discipline about context. I think that's the lesson I would take in terms of American studies.
Q: How does Johnny Cash's legacy continue to endure 20 years after his death?
A: A lot of it is through movies. For example, one of his songs is one of the beginning songs of the modern version of “Dawn of the Dead.” Another one is at the end of “Logan.” I also think that since a lot of music is available in a way it wasn't 40 years ago, people find it easier in different ways.
He's also one of these figures that, when (people) find him, they want to find … all sorts of things out about him. There was a movie made about him, and (there continue to be new projects about) him. There have been quite a few books about Johnny Cash besides ours that have come out in the last 10 years, including one that got some attention in the last year, so I think when people continue to write (about) and listen to him, the legacy continues.