It’s an early scene in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. The young Cash, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is auditioning for the man who might make him the next Elvis Presley. That man was Sam Phillips, the Sun Records impresario from Memphis.
The fictional Cash walks into the room and begins playing a Gospel song. The fictional Phillips is not impressed, and tells the fictional Cash that no one listens to Gospel anymore, and that he should play something more meaningful. More relevant. Cash did. The rest was history. Well, not quite. It turns out that Cash, who was born on February 26, 1932, didn’t stop playing Gospel music at all. Nearly a quarter of the songs he wrote were in some way about his faith or the Bible, and many others were influenced by his Christian worldview. But there wasn’t a single Gospel song on the Walk the Line soundtrack. Somehow, the screenwriters left out that important dimension of his musical catalogue. And there wasn’t a single mention of the greatest love of Cash’s life: Jesus Christ. That’s a love story the screenwriters of Walk the Line just couldn’t wrap their minds around. Yes, he loved June, the love of his earthly life. But she too loved Jesus Christ, and no doubt Cash’s love for her had much to do with her love for Him. That fact too was omitted from the movie. Cash recorded the entire King James Version of the New Testament, performed at countless Billy Graham revivals, made a movie about the life of Jesus, and studied the Bible as much as most divinity-school Ph.Ds. Somehow, none of that made it to the screen during the movie’s 136-minute running time. The screenwriters left all of that out, and for reasons that are inexplicable. Leaving out Cash’s Christian faith from his life story is like leaving out half-naked 19-year-old girls from Hugh Hefner’s. It’s like telling the story of Jackie Robinson without ever mentioning race or segregation. The tension between the flesh and spirit, between things of this earth and things of heaven, animated all of Cash’s music. It’s what drew audiences to him generation after generation. Sin and redemption, good and evil, selfishness and love, and the struggles of living by a standard set not by man but by God — all were driving forces in Cash’s work and life. While the rock-’n’-roll crowd was busy extolling the virtues of sexual freedom and rebellion, Cash was exploring eternal themes. Even his secular songs mined unusual territory for popular music. Here were the opening lyrics to his first No. 1 Billboard hit:
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine I keep my eyes wide open all the time I keep the ends out for the tie that binds Because you’re mine, I walk the line
Not exactly “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Cash wasn’t walking just any line. He was trying his best to walk a Christian line. He sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed. Cash spoke openly about his bouts with drug addiction. He talked about his selfishness, and how he lost contact with God during those periods, and the toll those episodes took on his loved ones. On himself. “You don’t think about anyone else,” he said late in his life. “You think about yourself and where your next stash is coming from or your next drink. I wasted a lot of time and energy. I mean, we’re not talking days, but years.” Believers and non-believers alike know about such struggles. That’s what attracted so many people to Cash’s music: his humility and his empathy. He had no tolerance for the false piety of many Christians, and respected people of all faiths. And those of no faith, such as his friend Kris Kristofferson: The two simply agreed to not talk about religion. Many great stories about Cash’s faith didn’t make it to the screen, but not because they were hard to find. Fans can find them in the remarkable biography by Steven Turner, The Man Called Cash.
One story that should have made it into the movie took place during a low point in Cash’s life, in the 1990s, 30 miles west of Chattanooga in the Nickajack Cave, an underground warren that’s home to over 100,000 bats. According to Turner, Cash spent time there earlier in his life, hunting for treasures such as Indian arrowheads and items left behind by Confederate soldiers. But on this occasion, Cash had different plans. This is what Cash told the writer Nick Tosches in 1995:
I just felt like I was at the end of the line. I was down there by myself and I got to feelin’ that I took so many pills that I’d done it, that I was gonna blow up or something. I hadn’t eaten in days, I hadn’t slept in days, and my mind wasn’t workin’ too good anyway. I couldn’t stand myself anymore. I wanted to get away from me. And if that meant dyin’, then okay.
He was going there to commit suicide. And that’s when things got really interesting. Cash continued:
I took a flashlight with me, and I said, I’m goin’ to walk and crawl and climb into this cave until the light goes out, and then I’m gonna lie down. So I crawled in there with that flashlight until it burned out and I lay down to die. I was a mile in that cave. At least a mile. But I felt this great comfortin’ presence sayin’, “No, you’re not dyin’. I got things for you to do.” So I got up, found my way out. Cliffs, ledges, drop-offs. I don’t know how I got out, ’cept God got me out.
That would have been quite a scene in Walk the Line. But it never made it to the screen. In August 1969, hundreds of thousands of young Americans gathered at Woodstock to watch Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, and others perform. It was a wet and wild affair as the counterculture asserted itself into the mainstream. Just two weeks later, Johnny Cash closed out his music-variety show on ABC with a Gospel song. It was a remarkable version of “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?” Always, to the end, Cash was a countercultural figure. Always a rebel. Perhaps his most famous recordings were the ones he made in prisons, especially his two shows at Folsom Prison. Cash seemed at home there. He didn’t see himself as better than those men. He was just one of the guys, and understood the prisoners in ways they realized, without his ever saying anything. It didn’t hurt that he’d written some of his best songs from the point of view of condemned and convicted men. The inmates loved him for that. America loved him for that. “He doesn’t sing for the damned,” Bono once commented about Cash, “he sings with the damned.” That was the true mark of Cash’s Christian walk: the empathy he had for the men and women often overlooked in our society. Prisoners; the hardworking field workers in rural America; the down-and-out and downtrodden; those of us struggling with personal demons, the kind that rob from us the best parts of ourselves. When Cash got serious about his faith, and left the women and alcohol behind, some of his old friends were not very happy with him. “They’d rather I be in prison than church,” Cash admitted. Waylon Jennings was especially tough on Cash, according to Turner, accusing him of “selling out to religion.” “He’d be attacked by agnostics and atheists if he appeared too pious,” explained Turner, “and he would be denounced by the religious community if he appeared too worldly.” Talk about a tough line Cash had to walk. But he tried to walk it. Cash was once asked how he was able to reach so many people with his message without ever hiding his faith. He had a simple, superb answer. “I am not a Christian artist,” he explained. “I am an artist who is Christian.” Cash was revered by artists of every genre, from hip-hop to rock. Springsteen and Bono, Snoop Dogg and Trent Reznor all admired the openly Evangelical southern man. And all because Cash transcended stereotypes, and transcended musical categories. He even transcended time, something few pop stars manage. His 2002 acoustic take on the Nine Inch Nails song about heroin addiction — “Hurt” — was about as courageous a recording as any ever made by a popular artist. Cash, who was 70, found an entire new generation of fans with that stark MTV video. Thus was the universal appeal of the man called Cash. And that is the universal appeal of a man called Christ. Steven Turner’s biography of Cash ends so beautifully that it is worth closing with his words:
The realm that Johnny Cash lived in was clouded by pain and colored by grace. He had the ability to transform the rough and commonplace into objects fit for heaven, just as he had been transformed. Rick Rubin remembers him taking Ewan McColl’s song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and turning it from a love song into a devotional song. “He loved that,” said Rubin. “It came really natural to him. It seemed like his devotion for life came from his devotion for God.”