Since his death in 2003 and more recently with the release of the Oscar-winning movie Walk the Line, music fans have been reminded of—or, for younger generations, introduced to—the music of Johnny Cash. Walk the Line told the story of Cash’s rise to fame and the shambles that was his personal life at the same time. However, the movie stopped short of telling the rest of Cash’s story.
In 1967, he was in trouble. By then, Cash was a major figure in country music with a number of successful songs including “Hey Porter,” “Cry Cry Cry,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line,” as well as a religious album, Hymns by Johnny Cash.
In spite of great success and critical acclaim, Cash was deeply addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates, which he was taking several times a day and by the handful.
“I was cancelling shows and recording dates, and when I did manage to show up, I couldn’t sing because my throat was too dried out from the pills. I was in and out of jails, hospitals, car wrecks. I was a walking vision of death, and that’s exactly how I felt,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Because his drug use isolated him from family, friends, colleagues, Cash felt abandoned, lonely and completely hopeless. So, in early October 1967, he decided to end his life. “I never wanted to see another dawn,” he said later. “I had wasted my life. I had drifted so far away from God and every stabilising force in my life that I felt there was no hope for me.”
Cash made his way to NickaJack Cave on the Tennessee River just north of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
This was a system of caves, some larger than two or three football stadiums, that ran under the mountains all the way to Alabama. For decades, the caves attracted the curious and provided shelter for fugitives. Cash had previously explored the caves with friends looking for Civil War and Native American artefacts. He knew several people had lost their lives in the caves across the years, usually by entering and then losing their way. “It was my hope and intention to join that company.” His plan was well thought out. He would crawl in so far that he would never find his way out and no-one would be able to locate him until he was dead.
Cash parked his Jeep, entered the cave and crawled for nearly three hours until his flashlight batteries wore out. Exhausted, he lay down in total darkness. “The absolute lack of light was appropriate, for at that moment I was as far from God as I had ever been,” Cash remembered.
“My separation from Him, the deepest and most ravaging of the various kinds of loneliness I’d felt over the years, seemed finally complete.”
As he lay in the darkness waiting for death, Cash discovered a profound truth about God. “I thought I’d left Him, but He hadn’t left me.” He began to feel something powerful taking place in his mind and body, “a sensation of utter peace, clarity and sobriety.” It was a feeling that defied his intellect.
The feeling of tranquillity persisted and Cash began to focus on God. “There in Nickajack Cave 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.” Feeling the stirring of new hope, Cash found himself in a predicament. He was in total darkness, with no idea of which way was up, down, in or out of the maze of tunnels and caves. Deep inside the earth, there was no scent, light or sensation from the outside to guide him out. How can I escape from the death I’ve willed? he wondered.
His answer came in an intuitive urging to simply begin moving. “So,” he recalled, “I started crawling in whatever direction suggested itself, feeling ahead with my hands to guard against plunging over some precipice, just moving slowly and calmly, crablike.” Eventually, Cash felt a gentle, soft breeze and knew that the direction the breeze was flowing from would lead to a way out. Slowly, methodically, he followed the breeze until he began to see light and finally, the opening of the cave.
Amazingly, when he emerged, June Carter and his mother were there with a basket of food and drink. The women told Cash they knew something was wrong and felt led to come and find him.
Driving back to Nashville, he told them, “God saved me from killing myself.” Cash further said he was ready to commit himself to God and “do whatever it took to get off drugs.” He kept his promise and slowly recovered and regained strength and sanity.
“I rebuilt my connection to God,” he said. “By November 11, 1967, I was able to face an audience again, performing straight for the first time in more than a decade.” His first performance was at a high school. “I was terrified before I went on, but surprised, almost shocked to discover that the stage without drugs was not the frightening place I’d imagined it to be.” After that his life, both personal and professional, grew by leaps and bounds.
After the end of his first marriage, he married June Carter, went to perform at Folsom Prison in California and recorded his Live at Folsom Prison album, which became a huge hit re-establishing his career. The following year The Johnny Cash Show started on network television putting him before huge audiences every week for an hour across the United State.
In 1970 his son, John Carter Cash, was born. “My happiness grew and grew.
Sobriety suited me,” he said.
Although Cash continued to enjoy huge professional successes, something more important brought him meaning and satisfaction. He summed it up in his autobiography: “The greatest joy of my life was that I no longer felt separated from Him. Now He is my Counsellor, my Rock of Ages to stand upon.” When looking at the life of Johnny Cash, a normal man is revealed in the life of this superstar. Cash was not perfect.
No-one is, and becoming a Christian doesn’t change that. Life is not a fairytale and “happily ever after” rarely describes the final chapters of any true story.
The struggles Cash had with the temptations of this life often came back to haunt him, but he had something to hold onto in what he had found in Jesus Christ. One way to understand his journey is in the words he often sang: “Because you’re mine, I walk the line.” And that was Johnny Cash.