I remember crying when Johnny Cash died.  Not at first.  I spent the morning in a sort of impassive state, travelling from school building to school building as if the world were an unfamiliar place.   I was at college, living alone in a dorm at Kent State.  I had come downstairs to the lobby and if I remember right, Cash was playing through the speakers, on the radio.  When I heard it, I knew that something was wrong.  I knew that Johnny Cash wouldn’t be on the radio on any normal day.  Sure enough, when the song ended, the deejay announced that the man in black had died.

It was a Friday.  Soon after, I ate and went to class.  I floated across the sidewalks.  I was quiet and blank.  After class had let out, I gathered my stuff, got in my car and headed home for the weekend.  I put the Johnny Cash mix I had compiled of my favorite songs into the CD player.  A few songs in, before I had reached the interstate, perhaps at “Big River”, I started bawling.

Though there were many sides to Cash, there are two that stand out distinctly for me.  The first is of the legend, the larger than life icon who sang of murder and sin with complete conviction.  He was a man, no, a mythological creature, who burned down forests in stoned rampages.  This Cash is universally known and worshipped as a rock star.  The monument of this Cash will tower over the world until there is no world.

The second side is smaller, less distinct, but probably more accurate.  This Cash was warm, thoughtful, and deeply spiritual.  He collected books on theology.  He made frequent trips to the Holy Land, studying the ancestors of his faith.  Those closest to him testify of this Cash and it was this Cash, who, near the end of his life, laid aside his black coat, his legend, and recorded what I believe to be one of his greatest contributions to American music, My Mother’s Hymn Book.

Cash had recorded a number of gospel records over his long career, but the 15 songs of My Mother’s Hymn Book (a collections of gospel standards like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Softly and Tenderly”) can be traced back to his earliest memories.  They are songs that gave strength to the Cash family as they toiled in the cotton fields of Arkansas.  They are what shaped the young J.R. into the booming singer that he would become.   And they are songs that Cash drew upon when he found himself in the lowest depths of his addictions.

Come home, come home

You who are weary, come home…

I can imagine him, in his darkest hours, when voice and body were wrecked, recalling those words.

…Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,

Calling, O sinner, come home.

     Cash’s drug problems have been reiterated often.  After making a name for himself at Sam Phillips’s Sun Studio, Cash moved to Columbia Records and very quickly became a megastar.  To endure the long hours of touring and recording, he began taking amphetamines.  The pills wrecked havoc on his mind and body.  He grew agitated and restless.  His frame became gaunt, his eyes sunken.

The deeper he sank into his addiction, the more unstable his behavior became.  In 1965, he famously busted the stage lights of the Grand Ole Opry with his microphone stand.  Upon walking offstage, he met the Opry’s manager, who politely asked him never to return.

Cash’s life continued its long spiral downward until, in 1967, he decided to crawl into the bowels of NIckajack Cave, in Tennessee, and await death.   For hours he moved deep into the labyrinth of tunnels, until the batteries of his flashlight died and the darkness overtook him.  He recalled in his book, “Cash: A Biography”, that as he was laying there,

I felt something very powerful start to happen to me, a sensation of utter peace, clarity, and sobriety.  I didn’t believe it at first.  I couldn’t’ understand it.  How, after being awake for so long and driving my body so hard and talking so many pills-dozens of them, scores, even hundreds- could I possibly feel all right?  The feeling persisted, though, and then my mind started focusing on God…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.  I hadn’t prayed over my decision to seek death in the cave, but that hadn’t stopped God from intervening.

In complete darkness, perhaps hundreds of yards, perhaps a mile, deep inside a maze of caverns, he somehow, miraculously, crawled back out.

He would continue to struggle with his addictions for years afterward, but through war and through battle, his faith would once again be restored, helped along by little miracles.

One such miracle happened in New York, probably sometime in the 1970s, when he and June Carter walked past First Baptist Church.  They decided to enter when somewhere in the congregation, a young voice shouted, “JOHNNY CASH! Johnny Cash has come to church with me! I told you!  I told you he was coming!”

The young boy, mentally disabled, had told everyone earlier that Johnny Cash would be coming with him to church that day.

Cash wasn’t shy when it came to his faith.  He wrote a book about Paul, whose conversion he identified with.  He made a movie about Jesus, whose life he tried, and often failed, to emulate.  “Walk the Line” sort of downplayed this side of his life, in favor of the legend.  Nickajack Cave isn’t even mentioned (which I always found odd, being that it’s such a cinematic event).  But there’s no doubt, from what he’s written in both his autobiographies, that God, the God of his mother, the God of his youth, was the ultimate redeemer of his brokenness.  And it was to this God, and of this God that he sang in My Mother’s Hymn Book.  Only this time, he had been around long enough to know the seriousness of the words.

I’m sort of ambivalent about many of the later records Cash recorded for American Recordings.  A lot of the songs are crowded with instruments and guest stars, where few are needed; and they seem to perpetuate the myth of Cash.  I suppose that’s why I’m drawn to My Mother’s Hymn Book, where the myth is forsaken.  The producer, Rick Rubin, and the engineer, David Ferguson, are doing what musicologists like Alan Lomax and John Cohen and Mike Seeger did in the middle of the century.  They are capturing an important voice before it’s gone; documenting a musical tradition before it is lost to history.  The only things we hear on the record are the simple strums of Cash’s guitar, and a voice that still booms like thunder; that says, with all certainty,

Though all hell assail me, I shall not be moved.

     Of the 40 plus albums that Cash recorded over his life, he called this one his favorite.  He sings from a worn book of hymns that his mother passed on to him.  He sings of the faraway shore and of life eternal.  He sings not as the legend or as the undying outlaw, but as a man humbled and frail before his God, the weight of death and glory on his shoulders.

I think it was this Cash that I cried for so many years ago.  It was this human Cash that I understood.

 

Information gathered from Cash’s two autobiographies, “Man In Black” and “Cash: the Autobiography”, as well as the liner notes to My Mother’s Hymn Book.

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