One gets the impression that when Johnny Cash lays eyes on St. Peter, he'll have a guitar slung around his neck and be looking for a microphone. The Man in Black never seemed to have been satisfied with any kind of retirement plan-the video of his version of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt" was a multiple nominee at last month's MTV awards--and we are all beneficiaries of his work ethic. "So many times, when there would be something I'd have to do that I didn't have my heart in, I'd say, 'All I ever wanted to do was play my guitar and sing a simple song,'" Cash told Rolling Stone magazine. "And that's still all I want to do."
Dead today at the age of 71, Johnny Cash is a patriarch of modern American music, a singer and songwriter almost beyond category. Launched into fame by hits such as "Folsom Prison Blues," "Ring of Fire," and "I Walk the Line," Cash sold more than 50 million records and won 11 Grammys. He is the only person to be inducted into the rock-and-roll, country music and songwriters halls of fame. He worked with Elvis and Dylan, and performed for presidents and prisoners.
He wrote books, hosted a popular television show, starred in and produced movies, and recorded some 1,500 songs found on 500 albums. The king of blue-collar troubadours, Cash had the lurching height of a NBA forward, the distinctive features of an Abe Lincoln, the swagger of John Wayne, and the he could rise to a moral authority equal to Moses'.
'Can You Hear the Angels Sing?'
Cash was brought up in Depression-era Arkansas, a farm boy whose family scraped at twenty acres of government-granted land. His was a white-trash culture that depended on the white light of religion. The echoes of Pentecostal fire and brimstone preaching reverberating through his soul. "The first preachers I heard at a Pentecostal church in Dyness, Arkansas, scared me," Cash wrote. "The talk about sin and death and eternal hell without redemption, made a mark on me. At four, I'd peep out of the window of our farmhouse at night, and if, in the distance, I saw a grass fire or a forest fire, I knew hell was almost here." That deep sense of everlasting accountability was etched deep into the soul of Cash.
The young Cash loved music, especially when his mother, Carrie, sang gospel songs in the cotton fields or played guitar and sang "What Would You Give In Exchange for Your Soul?" by the Monroe Brothers. "The music in the Pentecostal churches in the early years was wonderful," Cash recalled. "They were more liberal with the musical instruments used. I learned to sit through the scary sermons, just to hear the music; mandolins, fiddles, bass, banjo, and flattop guitars. Hell might be on the horizon, but the wonderful gospel-spiritual songs carried me above it."
Only a few months after that experience at the altar, he was confronted with the horrible death of his older brother Jack. Cut severely while cutting fence posts, Jack Cash was rushed to the hospital, but there wasn't much that could be done. As Cash told the tale in his book "Man in Black," Jack awoke and asked, "Why is everybody crying over me? Mama, don't cry over me. Did you see the river?"
"No, I didn't, son," Carrie replied.
"Well, I thought I was going toward the fire, but I'm headed in the other direction now, mama. I was going down a river, and there was fire on one side and heaven on the other. I was crying, 'God, I'm supposed to go to heaven. Don't you remember? Don't take me to the fire.' All of a sudden I turned, and now, mama, can you hear the angels singing?" The family at his bedside listened with stunned attention. "What a beautiful city," he said. "And the angels singing. Oh, mama, I wish you could hear the angels singing."
"It was like a burden had been lifted from all of us," remembered Cash, "and it wasn't just the eight-day burden of fighting for Jack's life. Rather, we watched him die in such bliss and glory that it was like we were almost happy because of the way we saw him go. We saw in our mind's eye what he was seeing-a vision of heaven."
That vision would be long lingering in his psyche and spirit. "The memory of Jack's death, his vision of heaven, the effect his life had on the lives of others, 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," he would say.
Never Ignore the Gift
When he renewed his faith in the 1970s, Cash said Billy Graham advised him to keep singing "Folsom Prison Blues" and "A Boy Named Sue," and "all those other outlaw songs if that's what people wanted to hear--and then, when it came time to do a gospel song, give it everything I had. Put my heart and soul into all my music, in fact; never compromise; take no prisoners," Johnny Cash said in "Cash," a book written with Patrick Carr. Cash sang in sold-out honky-tonks and jam-packed arenas at evangelistic crusades--never allowing himself to be too easily pigeonholed by the holy or the heathen.
"Johnny Cash doesn't sing to the damned, he sings with the damned, and sometimes you feel he might prefer their company," wrote U2 singer Bono in the liner notes of Cash's "God" collection. "Johnny Cash is a righteous dude, and he keeps righteous company with June Carter Cash and the Carter Family, but it's the 'outlaw' in him we love . the 'thief' who would break and enter your heart, and leave you with a nagging question, 'Were you there when they crucified my Lord?'"
For all that, Cash will remain a spiritual enigma, singing about murder and Judgment Day on the same album. "I believe what I say, but that don't necessarily make me right," he told Rolling Stone. "There's nothing hypocritical about it. There is a spiritual side to me that goes real deep, but I confess right up front that I'm the biggest sinner of them all."
Few things divide parents and their kids like popular music. God seems to have gifted Johnny Cash like no other artist to bridge the chasm between age groups. Cash's magnetism spanned time too, remaining a dominating presence in American life over five decades. "Locust and honey . not since John the Baptist has there been a voice like that crying in the wilderness," wrote Bono. "The most male voice in Christendom. Every man knows he is a sissy compared to Johnny Cash."
Cash's lasting appeal may have a lot to do with the songs he wrote for the man on the street-or perhaps more appropriately, the guy hanging out in the alley. His repertoire always included tales of injustice and stories of redemption. He loved prisoners, the working man, the welfare mother-those found on the outskirts. "Those are my heroes: the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the disenfranchised," Cash told a magazine late last year.
When he sang, you could almost taste the hillbilly moonshine, smell the sulfur of a smoking gun, and feel the drops of blood off the thorny crown of a crucified Christ. His momma used to tell him, "God has his hand on you. Never ignore the gift."