Citizen Cash usefully combines biographical detail and cultural analysis with music history to provide an in-depth portrait of the ways Cash acquired his political and social ideas and wove them into the fabric of his music.
Foley is a well-regarded historian and does an excellent job of placing Cash’s life and career within the contexts of his time ... the book can be slippery. Its strongest cases for Cash’s political activity come in chapters about his commitment to prison reform and his outspokenness on Native American issues. But these aspects of Cash’s biography are already well known, and while Foley does give them a fuller sense of dimension and rootedness, there’s not much that’s particularly revelatory. Other chapters find Foley’s 'politics of empathy' straining to square Cash’s contradictions ... More frustrating is a chapter on Cash’s relationship to the civil rights movement ... Foley’s arguments for Cash as an overlooked egalitarian in this arena can feel far-fetched ... Foley’s book is clearly born of a good-hearted impulse: In a contemporary political landscape marked by tribalism and polarization, an ideologically transcendent 'politics of empathy' might offer a way out. It’s just not clear that Cash is its exemplar. Citizen Cash is likely to resonate most satisfyingly among Cash die-hards, who’ll thrill to hear why their hero is even nobler than they thought. But for a book that feels like an exhortation to turn our political gaze outward, it’s mostly preaching to the already converted.
Cash’s empathy,' Foley proposes, 'transcended ideology—it was supra-partisan.' It’s an appealing argument for the hymning of bygone communions of daring artists and mass audiences. Unfortunately, it’s not really borne out by the facts of Cash’s life ... Foley’s effort to force Cash’s life and artistic career into the procrustean bed of empathic politicking tends ironically to flatten out the legacy of Cash himself; at virtually every juncture of Citizen Cash, he translates the singer’s creative and commercial exploits into stages in his progression toward maximum empathy ... This rushed-though-massive disclaimer points up another gaping difficulty with the argument of Citizen Cash: If Johnny Cash is a performer imprinted like the Lincoln Memorial on the consciousness of the American public, wouldn’t a Cash-produced anti-racist broadside have made an impression as such on his audience? Instead, to keep his outsize claim for the record’s topical impact looking viable, Foley continues to pile disclaimer upon disclaimer ... readers are left pondering Cash’s distinctly muffled indictment of white racial power alongside the other episodes in his career bespeaking an erratic commitment to principles of racial justice—and suspecting that his audience was likewise apt to shun the specter of racial discomfort whenever it was afforded the opportunity ... Foley’s argument is on far stronger grounds when it recounts Cash’s strong commitments to the causes of veterans’ rights, prison reform, and Native American justice. But the case for recasting Cash as a poet-statesman on the vanguard of democratic self-expression is ultimately both too sweeping and too confining to match up with the legacy of the actually existing Johnny Cash. Cash’s life and work make for enormously rich and rewarding study without the added burden of anointing him an unheralded savior of America’s battered civitas—it was far more than enough that he was Johnny Cash.
Foley’s method is to remind each set of fans of the other Cash, the Cash they’ve conveniently forgotten, and then show how he made up a single human being, one who did his own justice to the complex task of being an American. The argument has a certain wishfulness to it. To begin with, there’s the faith Foley places in 'empathy,' or Cash’s tendency to be 'guided by his own emotional and visceral responses to the issues.' What thinking person in 2022—amid the outrage and umbrage Olympics that is American life—still wants an emotional response? We prefer, I think, respect, health care, and a living wage. The case made by Cash is less on behalf of 'empathy' than of a world in which partisan affiliation isn’t a depressingly strong predictor of—well, everything else, including musical taste ... Foley doesn’t say, though he has a maddening tendency to construe the most modest gesture of allyship as a profile in courage ... Some readers may walk away convinced that Cash was a Whitmanesque giant, containing multitudes. I often found myself wondering if he wasn’t a two-faced equivocator. The book is a welcome corrective to the tendency to treat the man as so internally contrary as to be a complete enigma. But the cost of rescuing Cash from the metaphysical fog has been to turn him into a plaster saint. Neither does justice to the actual extent of his weirdness.
With sufficient detail and a gift for storytelling, Foley explores these and many other aspects of Cash’s complex life ... A powerful biography that will leave fans with a newfound respect for the Man in Black.