Musician. Christian. Songwriter. Husband. Father. Addict. Idol. Johnny Cash was most well known for being a performer. In his “real life” he described himself as a Christian first and foremost. He was a Christian who chose to be an entertainer, not the other way around. Johnny’s rise to fame (and occasional falls from grace) were best described by his deontological ethics. He tried to live the life that he believed God had prescribed for him. From the time Johnny was a child, he knew that he wanted to become a singer. He was inspired by listening to songs in church and singing gospel music with his siblings in the cotton fields. However, once he accomplished his goal of becoming a singer, he started to stray from his Christian roots. Due to the fame that he gained, and the easy access he had to drugs and alcohol, at many times neither God nor his career was his first priority. He got to the point where these substances were the most important thing in his life. His musical career and his personal relationships all suffered due to this addiction. Despite the darkness he experienced at the lowest points of his life, Johnny always kept God in the back of his mind. Johnny realized in the retrospection of his forty-three years of ups and downs (the time at which he wrote this autobiography) that it was his faith that helped save him. With the encouragement of those around him, especially his second wife, June Carter, he cleaned up his life and turned himself over to the Lord. Johnny didn’t make any deep transformations throughout his life. In fact, it was more of coming full circle that helped Johnny to realize the life that he really wanted to live.
Johnny’s childhood had a great influence on his career – and faith – alike. He always felt that music was his calling. It was in church that he realized that he wanted to be a musician. He felt fear when he would go to services because he didn’t understand worship at that time. However, his mother would still make him go every Sunday. Regardless of this apprehension, Johnny did discover one part of the service that he did enjoy very much – the music. “But as far as I was concerned, the service might as well have ended when the songs were over. Because it was the songs that I was beginning to feel” (25). He was starting to see the beauty in music and worship. He felt, from the time he was a young boy to the time he was an adult, that when he sang, he was communicating with God. While he would work in the cotton fields with his siblings, he would sing song after song. His sister, Reba, would sing You Are My Sunshine every single time, so he only let her sing when he needed to take a break. Johnny used this as an opportunity to test his voice and his memory. At the time, he had a very high voice, but more importantly, he also had a knack for remembering the songs that he heard on the radio. As he grew a little older, and saw more performers in person, he became completely convinced that he was going to become a musician as well. “I felt an eager anticipation about my future, an exciting expectation of the years coming in which I knew I’d be on that stage singing those songs I loved” (58). Clearly, with the help of the Gospel performers that Johnny heard and saw as a boy, he knew from a young age what he wanted to do with his life. He saw music not only as a way to express himself, but also as a way to further connect with God.
Beyond the love for music he discovered while in church, other occurrences in Johnny’s childhood would go on to shape him for the rest of his life. When Johnny was young, he completely idolized his older brother Jack. Johnny saw Jack as his protector and best friend. “I suppose no two boys in a family were ever closer to one another or loved each other more than me and my brother Jack” (31). He described his brother as an inspiration to him and to the community as a whole. Johnny believed that Jack’s resounding faith in God acted as a beacon that would later help him make difficult moral decisions. He would ask himself “What would Jack have thought about this situation?” He saw Jack as his protector, and when he died at the age of fifteen, Johnny’s life was completely turned upside down. When the Cash family fell on hard times financially, Jack began working at a workshop in a local Arkansas high school. He would cut fence posts and receive three dollars for a day’s work. One day in 1944, Jack had a bad feeling before going to work, but went anyway, believing that it was very important for him to help make money for the family. While at work, Jack got tangled and pulled into a big table saw. He was very severely injured. Although he managed to pull through for a few more days, Jack ended up dying. The last time Johnny went to visit Jack, his brother would not even look at him. Later, Johnny would come to the conclusion that his brother was trying to show him that he had to go on living without the person who had meant the most to him. However, Johnny would come to learn just how difficult this would be. “The memory of Jack’s death, his vision of heaven, the effect his life had on the lives of other, and the image of Christ he projected have been more of an inspiration to me, I suppose, than anything else that has ever come to me through any man” (48). Jack’s impact would never leave Johnny. Once he started battling his addiction, Johnny would remember him in his darkest moments.
Another huge milestone in Johnny’s life came when he enlisted in the Air Force in 1950. After being stationed at three different bases in his first year and finishing up at radio operating school, he was sent to Germany. At first, he continued in the strong Christian ways that he had lived during his youth. Instead of using his three-day passes to go out and drink, he would go to church. However, it didn’t take long for Johnny to fall into the habits of the men around him. “Practically everybody in Germany drank beer, and when everybody does it, then, as with many other things, we make the mistake of telling ourselves it’s all right” (67). From then on, Johnny started drinking more and more and attending church and writing home less and less. He picked up the habits of drinking and being altogether profane. These habits would be something that Johnny would have to battle again later in his life.
When Johnny came back from Germany four years later, his life changed in many aspects. He came home to a girl he had dated before he’d left and had kept in correspondence with during his time in Germany. Although they had only officially dated for less than one month, he and Vivian Liberto were married in 1954. His marriage helped him start going to church again. Vivian was a Catholic and Johnny was a Protestant, but he didn’t see this as a problem because he believed they worshipped the same God. He and his family, including their four daughters together, Rosanne, Kathleen, Cindy, and Tara, lived in a home of peace and love a long time. Johnny had given up alcohol when he returned home (he said he never really enjoyed the taste of it anyway) and was working as an appliance salesman. However, this job did not fulfill what he truly wanted to do with his life. The whole time, all he could think about was music. Alas, this love would come at a price, and once Johnny fully pursued his dream, his family would come falling apart.
As Johnny’s career took off, so did his problems. Progressively, Johnny built a name for himself in the music industry. He attended Keegan’s School of Broadcasting in Memphis so that he could get a job as a disk jockey. He made his way up through the ranks by performing gigs and eventually getting signed to a record label. In the beginning of his career, he noted that there was beer and whiskey in every dressing room. At first, these things were not at all important to him. He just wanted to make music and sing about the Lord. But alas, it didn’t take long for him to fall back into his old bad habits. The more he travelled, the less he could be home and once again, the less he went to church. A strain was being put on his marriage and faith even at the early stages of his career. He said that being alone in his walk with God while on the road left him vulnerable to even more temptations than he had succumbed to during his time in Germany. It was during this time that he wrote “I Walk the Line.” He wanted to write something that signified that he was going to be true to himself, the people who depended upon him, and most importantly, God. Unfortunately, this was a line that Johnny would go on to repeatedly cross.
Once Johnny started abusing drugs and alcohol, his career and relationships with God and those around him went on a downward spiral. He was first introduced to amphetamines such as Dexadrine, Benzedrine, and Dexamyl by fellow musician Gordon Terry while they were on tour together. At first, Johnny saw these pills as a God-send. They would help him stay awake on his long trips and perform at his peak. Conversely, these drugs actually ended up pushing him farther away from his faith. They would become something he would later refer to as a demon called deception. He felt above consciousness, and if he ever began to worry about any harm that might be coming from the pills, he would just take some more. Once he moved his family to California, his transformation into addiction was complete. He stopped going to church altogether and started drinking all kinds of alcohol in access. As he would come down from his highs, he would experience long periods of depression. The longer he was on pills, the more violent and unpredictable he became. He heard voices in his head that would tell him that everything was all right – that no one could tell he was doped up. But he would have the occasional moments of clarity. He would secretly be aware that people knew about his addiction. He noticed how his problem was affecting his life. He would hear God calling out to him, “I am your God. I am still here. I am still waiting. I still love you.” When fellow performer June Cash would say that she was praying for him, he would whisper that he was afraid he wasn’t praying with her. Obviously, the more Johnny used, the farther he pushed away his faith.
His addiction cost him an even larger price with his family. It was what eventually ruined his first marriage. He was never there for his family, and he knew it. “As time went by and the habit took firmer control, I learned that with a few more pills even my grief and guilt would bother me no more. So for all practical purposes, my girls lost a daddy, and their daddy was coming closer and closer to losing his mortal and spiritual life” (110). He realized that he was missing out on things in his daughters’ lives such as their first words, their birthday parties, and their first communions. More importantly though, he knew there were things they were missing out on – having a father to protect, comfort, and encourage them. Not only was he a shotty father and husband, but also a bad son and brother. During one of his darkest times, he invited his whole family to his new, completely unfurnished house to commemorate the twenty-third anniversary of his brother Jack’s death. He wanted everything to be perfect, but it was far from that. He asked June to prepare a meal, after he realized that he had nothing to make. He ended up yelling at her the whole time, and then begging her to stay after their fights. He saw how much he had hurt her. And he saw how much he was hurting his family. He knew just how long they’d suffered with the love they had for him. Once the dinner began, Johnny left an empty seat at the table. He said that the demons inside him took him back to his childhood and diluted him into thinking that Jack would reappear. “I had a vacant chair at the table where Jack would sit. When jack did not appear, Satan probably figured that in my shame and disappointment I might reject the idea of the second appearance of Christ also” (128). Clearly, the demons Johnny’s addictions caused severely hurt his relationships with his family. His mom wanted to believe that her son was going to be okay. Johnny’s brother, Roy, although not believing it himself, reassured her by saying, “He’s been through the fire for a special reason, I don’t know what the reason is, but he’ll be OK” (129). Nevertheless, it was going to take him a while for Johnny to get out of that burning ring of fire.
Not only was Johnny’s spiritual and family life crumbling underneath him, his career was also in danger when he was doped up on pills. In 1965, in one of his most intoxicated performances, he did something that would damage his name as an entertainer and country singer. He was performing at America’s greatest country venue, the Grand Ole Opry. Do to his severe drug usage, his voice had become very raspy and he was down to a staggering 165 pounds. When he got on stage in his stupor, he unsuccessfully attempted to remove the microphone from the stand. He ended up dragging the stand across the length of the stage, breaking fifty to sixty footlights, shattering glass all over the set and into the audience. When he got off stage, management informed him he was no longer welcome.
Beyond his career, Johnny was most importantly risking his own life. Johnny had an unhealthy fascination for going on drives and camping trips while he was high. These trips often times put his life, and the lives of those who were with him, in great danger. In a seven year period, he totaled two jeeps and a camper, turned over two tractors (one of them into the lake behind his house) and a bulldozer, sank two boats (on two separate occasions), and jumped from a truck just before it went over a 600 foot cliff. During this same amount of time, he was also arrested seven times, in seven different places, two of which he does not even remember. These incarcerations began to open Johnny’s eyes to the problems he had. After one of his most memorable arrests, he felt ready to give up and die. He had crossed the border into Mexico to illegally get his hands on pills. A cop started following him, but Johnny wasn’t too worried, and played the situation off. Once he got on a plane to go home from El Paso, he realized that he should have been troubled. Right before takeoff, in front of all the other passengers, a cop said the plane couldn’t lift off because they had to remove Johnny Cash first. During his interrogation, they poured all his pills on the table and questioned him about heroin. Johnny had never in his life touched that drug, but nonetheless was still in major trouble for the crime he had committed. While in jail, he had many visitors, but it was during this time that he was ready to give up. He was seeing how much his addiction was hurting those around him. When more visitors started coming, he made a deep confession. “‘I don’t ever want out of this cell again,’ I said silently to myself. ‘I just want to stay here alone and pray that God will forgive me and then let me die. Because I’m too weak to face everyone I have to face. Knowing my family is heartbroken, knowing my friends and fans are hurt and disappointed – it’s more than I can reconcile with them’” (137). Johnny tried to pray, but the words just wouldn’t come out. He knew in his mind what he should say, but the drugs prevented him from expressing them to the Lord. It wasn’t until his next and final arrest in 1967 that he had a much greater awakening. Once he was awoken, the sheriff had some choice words for Johnny. He and his wife were big fans of Johnny’s and it broke his heart to see such a talented man in such shambles. He knew that Johnny was going to do with his life as he pleased, because it was clear to him that he no longer cared about anything. “I’m going to give you your money and your dope back because you know better than most people that God gave you a free will to do with yourself whatever you want to do… Now you can throw the pills away or you can take them and go ahead and kill yourself. Whichever one you want to do, Mr. Cash, will be all right with me” (139). Johnny saw Sheriff Jones as a true God-send, unlike the pills that he originally felt that way about. He helped him to realize just what he was doing with his life. If he continued to use, he was going to kill himself. He then began to contemplate what it really meant to live.
When Johnny returned home, he knew that he would need the help of the people who loved him most to help him clean up his act. A major influence in this recovery was June Carter. From the time they first met, they had a connection, and she was prepared to help him clean up his life and return to God. He described her as the one person who could talk to him and get through to him when no one else could. And in his darkest moments, she was the one who tried to pull him up. “She learned my habits, knew where I kept my pills, and when things got bad she would get them and throw them away” (117). If it weren’t for June’s help, Johnny would have killed himself. She would pray for him and help him realize when he was on the brink of death, just how much life actually meant. He turned to her when he wanted to come off the drugs. With the assistance of Dr. Nat Wilson and many of Johnny’s spiritual and sober friends, he started his betterment. Still, he and everyone around him also knew that he didn’t stand a chance unless he turned his life back over to God. “I didn’t have the peace inside for a lot of praying, but every breath was a prayer, a fighting prayer, and I wasn’t giving up. I had turned it over to God. I had humbled myself. I was asking Him to help” (144). Although Johnny thought he was ready and willing to change, it would be a very hard process. He was still hungry for the pills, and he ransacked the upstairs in which he was locked searching for them. Thankfully, his friends had gone through the whole house and disposed of all of them. June once again reminded him that he couldn’t clean up on his own. She told him to turn his problems over to the Lord, and when he finally fully did so, he was ready to make his new beginning. Once he sobered up, he could once again be a father. He could once again be a Christian. With his darkness seemingly behind him, he and June got married and lived a life in Christ together. But even with this, his demons had not completely disappeared.
After several months of sobriety, Johnny relapsed while on tour. He and June were performing for the troops in the Far East, at bases in Vietnam and Manila. The tour was draining him physically and emotionally, so he turned to a dear old friend – drugs. He called down to the hotel doctor while June was out shopping. He knew just what to say and just how to get the pills. The doctor willingly gave him several dozen pills, but warned him to not take them in excess. Try as he might, the demons came crawling out, and Johnny couldn’t fend them off. When June came back, he was visibly sicker than before and high out of his mind. She told him to throw the pills away, but he hid some in his pocket and continued to take more throughout their trip. At their last performance, Johnny was at his worst. He was blinded by the lights on stage and could barely sing above a whisper. He simply went through the motions during the show, and this is when he found himself at another turning point. “After an hour of that hell I closed the show with, ‘I’m sorry I was late, men, and I’m sorry I was in such bad shape. You’ll never see me this way again,’ and I walked off” (179). When he got back to the hotel room, he knew he could never look back. He had to stop using and fully turn his problems over to God. He learned a lesson that night: that God is love and God is forgiving. Once again, he was faced with a set of priorities. God’s power was at number one, but he knew that the devil was waiting behind at number two on the list, trying to snatch Johnny at any given opportunity. He knew that he had to rededicate his life to God, because he was nothing without Him.
In the end, Johnny came full circle in life by reaffirming his faith. When Johnny proclaimed himself a Christian when he was twelve-years-old, he was doing it to set the “direction of his life.” He believed that if he didn’t accept him, he might as well reject him. After years of turning his back on God, he decided to recommit his life. “The stand I would take in 1971 at the Evangel Temple in Nashville, twenty-seven years later, and the changes that would come about then would be a restoration of the joy of my salvation that I had experienced at age twelve. But more than that, it would be a complete returning of God, a total submission to His will for my life. I couldn’t know at age twelve that every day is a brand-new mountain, and though you might feel close to heaven today, tomorrow you can be down in the lowest valley” (39). While many of Johnny’s ethical dilemmas didn’t always fit into his faith’s teachings, he always knew that he needed God’s help to get wherever it was he wanted to go in life. God was the one who helped Johnny have a successful career, a successful marriage, and most importantly, a life worth living.
Cash, Johnny. Man in Black. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975.