Jul 30, 2008 Herm Card Uncategorized
Michael Streissguth began his distinguished academic career in 1988 at Purdue University. Twenty years later, serves as communications director for Le Moyne college, and is, along with his wife Leslie, an associate professor of English at the school. Along with their three children Emily, Cate and Willie (12, 9 and 8) and dog Jack, they live in Syracuse.
Streissguth graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1988 with a degree in journalism and history, and earned his Master of Arts degree in communication from Purdue in 1990. While he has made a name for himself as an educator, he has become increasingly well known for his writing–on a seemingly atypical subject for an English professor in the urban northeast–country music.
He has combined his love of music, history and writing into what has become a substantial– and impressive–body of work. In the language of the academic community, he has a concentration on Johnny Cash.
Streissguth is an oft-cited reference source for music writers, the author of three Cash-related works, including Johnny Cash: The Biography (Da Capo, 2006), and the writer and co-producer of a documentary film based on Cash’s legendary 1968 appearance at Folsom Prison.
When he decided to pursue his interest in writing, the subject matter was logical, fueled by his keen interest in music. “The quickest thing I could start writing about was music, so I started writing about the blues, rhythm and blues, and country music. I kind of carved out a niche, and the country music niche has grown. I didn’t have any special training in country music–maybe it was just an inkling, like, ‘I’m interested in the subject, I like the subject, I’m a half-decent writer, and let’s see where it goes.'”
Streissguth, 42, grew up in Maryland–suburban Washington, DC– hardly a hotbed of country music. But, his interest was kindled early on as he listened to a local radio station, WXTR–“XTRA 104”–an FM country music station.
“Every day, I’d arrive home from school just as they were featuring a particular album side–it might be Eddy Arnold, or Elvis or Merle Haggard, but I’d always look forward to listening to that.
“My father, brother and I used to root through thrift stores–It was a hobby of my father’s and still is. In Washington, there was a Salvation Army store with just books and records. This was a favorite spot of ours–albums for a quarter, 45s for a dime. I bought an album called Dick Clark’s Twentieth Anniversary of Rock and Roll. Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” was on the record, and that’s the first time I remember hearing Johnny Cash. I was immediately apparent that the guy was different. My mother had one of his albums, so I began to listen to him.
“The big thing to me was Elvis, and looking at him I began to make connections, and one of the connections was Sun Records where he was running with people like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, so this led me to more interest in Johnny Cash.”
Streissguth’s interest in Johnny grew at a time when Cash was something less than the legend he would become. “I was a teenager in the 80s and Cash was on television all the time. He was also in some really awful television movies. That became my Johnny Cash–the one the critics just dismissed.”
Streissguth’s first book was Eddy Arnold: Pioneer of the Nashville Sound (New York: Schirmer, 1997) a book that started out to be a magazine article. It grew into the bigger project because he knew that there were no books on Eddy Arnold but there was a lot of interest in country music. He was able to tap into that market. “I chose Eddy Arnold because I enjoyed his music and I figured I could convince a publisher somewhere that 80 million record sales could translate into at least a few book sales.”
Streissguth credits Studs Terkel and Peter Guralnick as being influential in his writing. “I ate up Studs Terkel’s oral histories. Division Street America and Hard Times really excited me. He inspired me to go after stories and interview people. That is tied to Peter Guralnick’s fabulous writing on music. Lost Highways was a collection of articles he had written over t he years, so he’s writing about people like Jack Clement who produced Johnny Cash, Bobby Blue Bland and Howlin’ Wolf
Writing about Eddy Arnold provided him with credibility in the world of country music and with publishers, leading to his second book, Like a Moth to A Flame: The Jim Reeves Story (Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1998).
“Jim Reeves was an easy transition from Eddy Arnold because they both recorded for RCA. A lot of the ground I’d covered for Eddy Arnold was ground Jim Reeves had walked on as well.
“The problem with writing about Jim Reeves was that he was not the same type of person as Eddy Arnold. He was more difficult, not always well liked, so when I wrote about that part of him, a lot of people didn’t like my portrayal. I actually got hate mail about it from many of his fans.
“Then I did a book called Voices of the Country: Interviews with Classic Country Performers (Routledge Hill Press, 1998). That book, extended interviews with country artists, may be the book I’m most proud of. Oral history is my primary source, cobbled together from people’s memory. I like to think it’s accurate history.”
Though Streissguth would not write Johnny Cash: The Biography until 2006, he, perhaps unknowingly, began the process in 2002 when his natural curiosity and writer’s sense of adventure led to his next project. He realized there were vast reservoirs of information available, much of it in the form of transcribed oral histories. As part of his prior research in the National Archives and many other document repositories he had come across numerous articles about Cash that had long been out of print. Because of his historian’s interest in the music and its cultural importance, he determined to create a collection to publish. This effort became Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Reader (Da Capo, 2002).
The process was not easy. He had to winnow down hundreds of articles to a manageable thirty for the final product, acquire permissions to use them and put it all together. “That was an administrative burden and I’m not sure I’d go through it again. The upside was that Ring of Fire was a way for me to learn more about Johnny Cash and get published at the same time.”
While talking to his editor at Da Capo as he explored possible new projects, he learned that they were working on a book about Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album. “I asked myself, if I were to write about a country album what it would be. Even though country has never been an album oriented genre, the answer was easy–Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. I took the idea to my agent, and that was that.”
“I wanted to make the point that Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison was an album on par with the great albums of the 60s– albums like Pet Sounds, Are You Experienced and Sergeant Pepper .” A lot of people thought I was crazy for thinking that, but that’s what I wanted to say. It was really a 60s kind of album–experimenting, pushing envelopes, that kind of thing. I felt that it had a legitimate place in music history”
Most people don’t realize that there were actually two concerts that day at Folsom. The morning show is the bulk of the album, but parts of the afternoon show were mixed in. Part of Streissguth’s research took him to SONY studios, where he was able to listen to the raw, unedited tapes from the two shows. “That was really cool. Listening to the actual concert. Before the show, the inmates were told how to behave, how and when to cheer, when to be quiet.”
His best discovery was probably that Cash’s famous line about shooting a man in Reno “just to watch him die” was received in silence. The iconic cheering that we hear on the album was dubbed in.
“It’s a fairly short book. The photographs by Jim Marshall take up most of it. I’d say the whole process only took about a year.” The process itself involved tracking down former inmates–not an easy task, given the State of California’s laws regarding releasing information on former prisoners. Again, Streissguth found himself going to great lengths researching and sleuthing his way to his information
He also got a great deal of help from Marty Stuart, Cash’s band mate, friend and one-time son-in-law. “He has a historian’s perspective on country music, and was very helpful in developing that aspect of the project.
“The book about the Folsom album came out about the time Cash died and when I started the biography, Marty helped me out again. I went to Nashville and met with him. It was hard for him because of the timing but he gave me a lot of really useful material.”
Streissguth’s research had not brought him into contact with many people from Cash’s life. “When I got into this, people seemed to be calling around to check me out to see if they were going to help me.” His established credibility from his previous work enabled him to get the help he needed to move forward
“I was intimidated by the prospect of doing a biography of Johnny Cash. I honestly didn’t feel that I could do him justice. He was a large, unwieldy figure. It was the participation of three of his daughters, Roseanne, Cindy and Kathy Cash that made a big difference. They spent a lot of time with me and gave me insights into things that hadn’t been published before. As a result, I had something new to say about Johnny Cash.”
“The publishers put on the book jacket that it was the definitive biography. I argued against that. How can you know if it’s the definitive biography when it’s just my interpretation?”
Shortly after the book’s release, Streissguth was on a talk show in Nashville and received a call from “John from Hendersonville” who turned out to be John Carter Cash, Johnny’s son. Cash asked him if he thought his book was the last word on his father.
“I said that it was my interpretation, and nothing more. I told him that people would still be writing about his father centuries from now. I never thought for a moment that even if you take all of my works on Cash, that they could definitively bottle Johnny Cash.”
Having put together a body of work on Cash, the logical next step was his current project, the documentary film Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. He had come up with the idea, but had not yet moved forward with it until meeting a filmmaker named Bestor Cram at the 2005 “Cash Bash” in Memphis.
“He had screened his documentary on the song “Orange Blossom Special.” I approached him with the idea for the documentary, he looked at the Folsom book, and that is where it all started.”
Cram and Streissguth have co-produced the film, with Streissguth writing the script, arranging and conducting the interviews while Cram directs the project.
“We go back and talk to a number of people in the book–Marty Stuart, and Millard Dedmon, for example. It also explores the story of Glen Sherley, and inmate at Folsom who wrote a song that Cash recorded and performed during the show. There are subplots that we weave together in the documentary. It’s a new look at Cash, putting him in a different setting and watching what he does in that setting.”
The completed film is scheduled for releases this fall through, probably through national PBS outlets. The exciting secondary release will be as part of a box set with the two Folsom Prison performance CDs to be released soon after. Streissguth has just completed the liner notes for the set.
“It’s not so much the music, but it’s the stories behind the music. When I can see a link between the musician’s art and his life, that excites me–I want to dig into that. I want to understand how these voices come to interpret that experience. That context informs all of these artists lives–the historical context is very important.”