There are only a handful of his songs that I don’t like. Of course, I love all the gospel music he recorded. But I also love everything from Cry, Cry, Cry to Cocaine to T for Texas to Hung My Head to his rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt and Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus. His music covers the whole spectrum of real human existence. Many of his songs bring tears to my eyes every time I hear them.
But as great as his music is, the reason I love Johnny Cash has just as much to do with his life and his witness to the grace and redemptive power of Christ. I have read two of his biographies and several essays about him in a book of collected essays. I also have a graphic novel about his life that I recently purchased (though I haven’t read it yet), and have read the introduction to his novel The Man in White. He lived a fascinating and tumultuous life.
For anyone interested in the life of a legend who is nonetheless an incredibly “real” person with struggles and trials just like the rest of us, I recommend The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love, and Faith of an American Legend by Steve Turner. This book is a meticulously researched and well-written account from which even those who knew Johnny well would likely learn something about him that they didn’t know before. Starting almost at the end, with the death of June Carter, and then winding his way through the early years, the middle years, and everything in between, Turner reveals a man who knew God as only a sinner can.
This book includes two awesome sections of black and white photos from Johnny’s life, as well as the unedited text of an interview Turner conducted with Johnny in 1988, a chronology of June and Johnny’s lives, a complete discography, and an index. But these are all just icing on the cake of a story that will bring tears to your eyes and a smile to your heart.
One of my favorite stories of redemption is about the time Johnny crawled into Nickajack Cave, thirty miles from Chattanooga, with the plan to never come out.
He believed that if he crawled in far enough, he’d be unable to find his way out. When he starved to death it would look like a tragic accident.”
In 1995 he [Johnny] told the writer Nick Tosches:
“It just felt like I was at the end of the line. I was down there by myself and I got to feelin’ that I’d taken 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, I’m ready. I just had to get away from myself. I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I didn’t think there was any other way. 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.
Turner, pg. 119.
And God did have things for Johnny to do. He had to show the world how even someone as strung out on drugs as he was could be redeemed by the grace of God. He had to show that despite our faults and weaknesses – or maybe because of them – God loves each and every one of us. He may have been a music legend, but he was never afraid to use his talent to glorify God and to share the gospel. His was a life of redemption and grace well worth reading about. If you think your life isn’t worth living or that God can’t possibly love you or redeem you, read about the life of one who was chief among sinners but who was saved by grace.
As a bonus to go along with this book review of his biography I want to share this video of the song “Singer of Songs” by Johnny Cash. It is a great synopsis of the purpose God had for his life and how he fulfilled it. He truly was a singer of songs about life, love, death, birth, God, and more. I suspect he’s still singing today at the throne of the King.