Happy 78th birthday, Johnny Cash. Is there cake in Heaven?
The other day someone asked when I became a Johnny Cash fan. I guess it was in ’94, around the time his first American Recordings project was released. It was given a 5-star rating in Rolling Stone, and my friend Jorin played it for me. Wow.
A few months later, I took Dad (who’d been a fan since forever) to see the Man in Black. It was a very cool show. Here’s one of my favorite photos, and some reasons why I’m a die hard Johnny Cash fan…
Sinners make the best saints
In the God’s Gonna Cut You Down Video, Bono paints a phrase on the wall, “Sinners make the best saints.” That’s Johnny Cash. He loved being the rebel, but singing the hymn. He loved pointing the underdog to the light, but abused alcohol and pain medication while getting in trouble with the law. He’d sing at Billy Graham crusades and (in other places) flip off “the man” for the cameras. He loved Jesus through it all.
In Charles Conn’s book, The New Johnny Cash, the author says, “…even in the worst days of his wanderings, he was more of a miserable prodigal than a crusader for the evil life.”
The Wanderer finds Jesus
I love Johnny’s journey of faith. Dave Urbanski wrote The Man Comes Around: the Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash. There, he recounts a story from Cash’s words (from his autobiography, Cash) and other interviews…the story of Nickajack Cave. In ’67 an enormously famous but broken Johnny crawled to the back of a Tennessee cave, figuring he’d get lost and die where no one could find him. While deep in the dark, he said, “I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea; I was not in charge of my destiny. I was not in charge of my own death. I was going to die at God’s time, not mine.” More on that later…
A few years ago, I interviewed his sister Joan, for On Course Magazine. Joanne Cash invited her famous brother Johnny to church where her “messed up” life had just changed for the better. Looking out from the choir loft a few weeks later, she joined the stares of the congregation, “It was John and June.” That Sunday morning in 1971, Joanne Cash watched her brother and sister-in-law walk to the altar where they were then joined by the family. Johnny said, “I think it’s about time I led my family back to Jesus.”
He life was now not his own, he even said, “I don’t have a career anymore. What I have now is a ministry. everything I have and everything I do is given completely to Jesus. ” (Conn’s book)
Just before emerging from Nickaback Cave to find his wife and mother (who’d flown in knowing something was wrong), Johnny realized, “I was going to die at God’s time, not mine.” Johnny made music until God took him. I know of no other musician and very few artists who’ve stared down death in the midst of doing some of their life’s best work.
Within earshot of a respectful Rick Rubin, Johnny sat in a cabin at his Hendersonville, TN, property and recorded music. For years he and his guitar (in the end, others had to play for him as autonomic neuropathy kept his hands from being steady), made absolutely beautiful music. He recorded songs while leafing through his mother’s hymn book, he also recorded songs released this week on his project, Ain’t No Grave.
He was tough, thoughtful, determined, and lived in reality until the end. I’ll share my thoughts on the project at another time, but the short version is…I love it.
I could write a book, but alas…
I could write about the various Cash eras, the great story of his career launch in Memphis, extended thoughts on his faith, and many other topics. I wrote here once about his boyhood home of Dyess, AR. I could write much more, but this is getting long…
So I’m a Johnny Cash fan. I’m not into country music at all, but Johnny was so much bigger than country…or gospel…or rock and roll. I’m a fan of his music, his faith, his journey, and the fact that he’s one of the coolest guys to ever live.
About his friend, Bob Dylan says, “Johnny didn’t have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger.”
Happy birthday Johnny Cash. Thanks for making great music and living a life worthy of respect from people from all walks. Tell Jesus hello today and know your music lives on…