Surrounded by music at church and in the home and cotton fields where he worked, from an early age Cash longed to be a musician. His stint in the Air Force widened his view of the world — he was stationed part of the time in Europe — and when he left the service, he married and headed for Memphis, where he worked a series of odd jobs while writing music, organizing a band, and trying to break into the recording industry.
Spring forward another three years, and Johnny Cash was well on his way to stardom. Several of his singles had made the top ten list on Billboard’s country chart, his band was traveling throughout the United States performing for large and enthusiastic audiences, and he was earning what must have seemed to him at the time an unbelievable amount of money.
Eventually, Cash performed for audiences ranging from prisoners to presidents.
On those road trips, Johnny Cash also became dependent on drugs, particularly amphetamines, an addiction that brought him trouble with the law, tarnished his reputation and came close to killing him. Though he stumbled many times, Cash eventually kicked his drug habit and once again began to write and perform the kind of music that had brought him fame in the first place.
His remarkable life led to two autobiographies, a movie, Walk The Line, based on those memoirs, and at least seven other biographies.
So did we really need another examination of Cash’s life?
Greg Laurie, pastor, speaker, and author of dozens of books, including Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon, thought so.
In Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon (Salem Books, 2019, 358 pages), Laurie examines the role of his Christian faith in Cash’s life. Laurie gives us all the facts and occurrences of that life — the hardship of his youth, his struggles with drugs, his rowdy behavior — but he is chiefly interested in looking at the ongoing tension between Cash’s drug use, his time on the road, and his spiritual journey. He captures this tension in statements like this one: “On the road, Cash was often distant, hard-driving, pill-popping — a full-tilt party-time outlaw who secretly carried a Bible in his briefcase.”
Of that party-time outlaw, Laurie writes, “By his own estimation, he had wrecked every car he had ever owned, totaled two jeeps and a camper, and overturned two tractors and a bulldozer. He sank two boats in separate instances, and he once leaped from a truck just before it went over a six-hundred-foot cliff.” Yet in recollecting that terrible time in his life, Cash later said, “I know that the hand of God was never off me, no matter what condition I was in, for there is no other way to explain my escaping the many, many accidents.”
Here was a musical artist who could write a song about a murderer killing a man “just to watch him die” but who loved singing gospel music and often ended his concerts with a hymn. Like most of us, Johnny Cash was a walking contradiction, a battleground of good and evil; unlike most of us, he was also a legend, a larger than life sinner-saint who might be popping amphetamines one week and devoting himself to reading his Bible the next.
Laurie connects certain stories from the Old Book to Cash’s faith and gives us a detailed look into the prayers, hymns, and friends who influenced him. In turn, Laurie also shows us the impact of Cash’s faith on those around him. Lead singer Bono of U2, for instance, called Cash a “father figure” and said of him, “Johnny Cash was a saint who preferred the company of sinners.” Cash’s friend, songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson, called him “Abraham Lincoln with a wild side.”
Laurie begins his story of Johnny Cash with a visit to his grave in Hendersonville Memorial Gardens, Tennessee. Here he records the golden letter inscription on a slab of black marble:
John R. Cash
Feb. 26, 1932
Sept. 12, 2003
Let the words of my mouth,
And the mediation of my heart,
be acceptable in thy sight,
And my redeemer.
Rest in peace, Johnny Cash. And thank you for those words and meditations.
In The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: True Stories About Defying the Impossible (Crown Archetype, 2019, 345 pages), we meet Johnny Cash’s daughter, Roseanne, who recounts her tough times in New York City when she was trying to break into the music business.
Edited by Catherine Burns, Occasional Magic is a collection of more than 40 true stories told by storytellers in front of live audiences at events sponsored by The Moth, a nonprofit that creates these occasions. The book’s dedication reads, “To The Stories That Give Us Perspective, Clarity, and Hope.”
If you’re looking for those things — and given the times, most of us are — you may find some solace and inspiration from these true-life tales.