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Today's Christian, September/October 2003

Johnny Cash—Live
Life has been rugged for country music's king—but he's on top, in all ways.
By James C. Hefley

(The following article appeared in the November/December 1983 issue of Christian Reader magazine)

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." That simple greeting from the big, craggy-faced man with weathered face and brooding eyes is enough to make the audience, any audience, explode in applause.

Country music's legendary "Man in Black" opens another show. Talking or singing in sepulchral tones with a quavering voice aptly described as "sounding like hot gravel dripping from hot molasses," Johnny Cash is the one country entertainer who can perform anywhere successfully.

He's at home in a casino supper club in Atlantic City, before network TV cameras, on a platform with evangelist Billy Graham, at a maximum security prison, on a stage behind the Iron Curtain (44,000 Czech fans bought out the Winter Sports Hall in Prague a month in advance for one of his concerts), and anywhere else he's called to perform.

The most respected performer in country music, he's also the most enduring superstar musician.

Johnny has been on five Country Music magazine covers—an honor given to no other performer. For his 25th anniversary in the profession, Country Music put out a special edition. As Country Music puts it, "Johnny Cash is the longest running superstar."

An obviously wealthy man, he owns song publishing houses in Hendersonville, commands top dollar for appearances, and sells millions of records every year. You can buy Johnny Cash watches, silver patches, tote bags, mugs, and even bells.

"There is no person in the world whom we [Ruth and Billy] have more affection for than Johnny Cash," says Billy Graham. Youth for Christ International named him "Man of the Year" in 1979 for helping young people. He attends a Pentecostal church outside Nashville, yet he received an honorary doctorate in humanities from Gardner-Webb College, a Southern Baptist school in North Carolina.

Many performers owe their first big break to Johnny Cash.

The Statler Brothers were virtual unknowns when Johnny Cash told them to open his show in Virginia before he had even heard them sing. After they returned home, he called them for another show, then another, and another. With only a handshake they began an eight-year relationship.

Kris Kristofferson says he's "sure I would never have been a performer were it not for Johnny Cash."

Larry Gatlin recalls, "Johnny was one of the first to befriend me when I came to Nashville, the first to take an interest in my old homemade songs. The first to put me on national TV, and the first to come bringing gifts to my son, whom we named Joshua Cash Gatlin."

However, no group loves him more than the prisoners for whom he often performs. They know about his brushes with the law and battle with drugs. They know that he is a survivor and a victor, one who understands, one who offers hope. That's why Gary Mark Gilmore, during his last hours before execution at Utah State Prison, called Johnny Cash and asked him to sing "Amazing Grace."

Perhaps "Amazing Grace," written by John Newton after the hard-drinking, profane slave trader found God, best describes the journey of Johnny Cash from the pit of despair to the pinnacle of glory. The record shows that he has more lives than ten cats. He wrecked every car he had for seven years, totaled two jeeps and a camper, turned over two tractors and a bulldozer, sank two boats in separate accidents on a lake, jumped from a truck just before it went over a 600-foot cliff in California, brawled and incurred permanent scars, and drove himself into a wild frenzy many times with drugs.

Yet when the raging voices quieted, there was always the "still, small voice" whispering, I am your God. 1 love you. I am waiting.

"The hand of God," Johnny Cash says, "was never off me." In all of his wanderings, Johnny could never escape the "hound of heaven," which pursued him from his childhood.

As a young boy, Johnny had tapped his toes in schoolhouse revivals to the rhythm of guitars, mandolins, and banjos. He'd sung "Shall We Gather at the River?" during baptisms at the "blue hole." He'd been converted at age 12. "A beautiful peace came over me that night. I felt brand new," he recalls. He felt a touch of heaven when he put his cheek against his dying brother Jack's lips and heard him whisper, "I'm going to a beautiful city. … I can hear the angels singing."

Nevertheless, like many other young men from devout homes, he began slipping away from home mooring while in the service. He learned to drink while stationed in Germany although he stopped after returning home and marrying Vivian Liberto, a Catholic girl. He didn't argue with Vivian about the requirement of her religion to raise the children Catholic. In fact, he himself usually took them to the Catholic church when he was home.

As a young married man, Johnny got a job as an appliance salesman in Memphis. He spent more time listening to the radio than knocking on doors. Without any professional experience, he applied for a deejay job in Mississippi. The station manager sent him back to Memphis to attend broadcasting school. There he became friends with two music-loving mechanics, Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins.

Their first request to sing came from a Pentecostal church just north of Memphis. "What are we gonna wear?" Luther asked. After thinking about it a minute, Johnny replied, "Why don't we just wear black because black's best for church." It's been black for Johnny Cash ever since.

They sang "Belshazzar," a song Johnny wrote based on a sermon he had heard from the Book of Daniel. Johnny didn't feel comfortable because he hadn't been to church in a while, but he appreciated the loud amens.

He heard that Elvis Presley, the young Assembly of God boy from Mississippi, had made a recording for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Johnny camped outside Sam's office until the manager agreed to hear an audition. "OK, I'm gonna take a chance on you, Cash," he said. "Let's hope you sell."

Johnny recorded a railroad ballad called "Hey, Porter," and a tearjerker named "Cry, Cry, Cry," which he had written. Sam sent advance copies to deejays and the voice of young Johnny Cash soon began to be heard on stations across the Midsouth.

Calls for performances started coming. Carl Perkins, a West Tennessean, joined Johnny, Marshall, and Luther. Carl reminded Johnny of his dead brother, Jack, who had wanted to be a preacher. Elvis Presley and a new talent from Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis, worked with them. Johnny, Carl, Elvis, and Jerry often harmonized on hymns.

Johnny and his friends left to join the "Louisiana Hayride" on KWKH, Shreveport. He found the atmosphere exhilarating, the crowds noisy and enthusiastic. Backstage, whiskey and beer flowed freely and "snuff queens," available for the night, fluttered among fans asking for autographs. Despite the temptations around him, Johnny walked the line.

He spent his first night away from home after performing in Shreveport. The next morning Johnny, Marshall, and Luther headed for Gladwater, Texas. They kept having to slow down to let cars turn in to churches along the highway. "I ought to go to church," Johnny kept saying.

"Yeah, yeah, I hear you," Marshall agreed. "If you want me to stop somewhere, say the word."

Luther, whose father was a Baptist preacher, said, "I'll go with you."

They never stopped. Johnny didn't realize it at the time, but he was starting a pattern of missing church that kept him from fellowship with other Christians for many years.

When Johnny hit with "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line," his career really took off. From the "Hayride," he moved to the Grand Ole Opry, making guest appearances on national television shows between road tours. By 1958 he had performed in every state in the Union, as well as in Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, the London Palladium, and places in Europe and the Far East. About this time he passed another crossroad.

During a long road trip with several Opry artists, one of the performers gave him a little white pill when he became sleepy. Within half an hour he was wide awake and alert. From then on he took amphetamines to stay up. By 1960 he was hooked, nervous, and irritable. On brief trips home, he couldn't sleep and walked the floors, trying to wear the pills off.

Four daughters in quick succession had kept Vivian tied down. As the babies came, she fought against the long trips that kept her husband away from home. She came to hate the career that was robbing her of her husband's companionship.

They moved to California in 1961 with Johnny vowing to do better. He rededicated his life to Christ and joined the Avenue Community Church in Ventura. He tried to beat the drugs but couldn't. He'd come staggering into the house, mumbling and fussing at Vivian and the girls.

His family came to fear him. Vivian would call his pastor, Floyd Gressett, who would haul Johnny to a ranch hideout and keep him off drugs. Johnny would go back on the road again with good intentions but return hooked. In 1966 Vivian gave up and filed for divorce. Johnny headed back to Nashville.

He began working with the Statler Brothers and the Carter Family. Maybelle and Ezra Carter, loving him like the son they never had, gave him a key to their house. Sometimes he'd lose it, come home crazed from drugs and drink, and kick the door down. June Carter started throwing his pills away. Sometimes he was glad, sometimes angry. She kept saying, "Johnny, I intend to help you, whether you like it or not. God has his eyes on you." But he always knew where to get more.

Stories of the wild and irresponsible antics of Johnny Cash kept the Nashville gossip line humming. Many were true. He had canceled out on a couple of promoters, leaving them to face bankruptcy. He had painted motel rooms black. He had broken down motel doors, sawed the legs off furniture and beds, tied door knobs together in the night, sounded the fire alarm, and turned baby chickens loose in the corridors.

One night he appeared on the Opry in bad shape. The band had struck up a song, but he couldn't remove the mike from the stand. In a fit of irrational anger he threw down the mike stand, picked it up, and dragged it to the edge of the stage. Then, oblivious to the glass shattering over the stage and into the audience, he began popping the colored floodlights. Afterwards, the Opry manager pulled him aside and said kindly, "We can't use you on the Opry anymore, John."

Johnny responded by jumping into his car and driving recklessly along rain-slick streets through a residential neighborhood. Crying and shaking, he swung around corners on two wheels until the car went out of control and crashed into trees. He totaled the car and climbed out with a broken nose and jaw.

Leaving the Garters, Johnny moved in with Waylon Jennings. He tried hiding his pills from Waylon—to no avail. He decided to buy a house around Old Hickory Lake where Red Foley, Roy Acuff, and several other entertainers lived. Down by a cove, he stopped in front of the oddest residence he had ever seen. The building was at least 200 feet long, with four big, 35-foot round rooms, one over the other at each end of the house.

The house was set on a solid rock foundation. Johnny saw in it a symbol of rebuilding his life on the sure Rock of Ague. When the man working at the house said he was building it for himself, Johnny told the contractor, Brixton Dixon, "No, this is my house!" Johnny bought the house.

The house didn't help. In October 1967 he was arrested on a drug charge in Lafayette, Georgia, and sent to jail. The next morning Sheriff Ralph Jones had him brought to the office.

Sheriff Jones looked sadly at the star, who was turning into a derelict. "Tell me, Mr. Cash," he said solemnly. "Why would a man like you at the top of his profession let a little thing like this [he held up a pill] destroy his life?"

An uncomfortable silence hung in the room. The lawman dropped his voice. "Mr. Cash, I'm not angry at you, just deeply hurt. I want you to know that my wife and I have followed your career for over ten years. We've bought every record you put out. You probably have no better fans than us. We've always loved you and we're hurt."

Johnny had never felt so miserable and low in all his life.

"Here are your pills. Take them and go. It will be your decision to destroy yourself or save your life."

"Sheriff," Johnny finally said. "I give you my word that I'll never take another one." Then he walked outside and threw the pills on the ground.

Johnny went back to Nashville and told June Carter about the experience. She made an appointment for Johnny to see Dr. Nat Winston a psychiatrist and then Tennessee's commissioner of mental health.

Johnny made it through the first night. The next day he found a bottle of amphetamines and swallowed a handful. He got on a tractor and drove it into the lake. As he was crawling out of the ice cold water, his contractor friend, Braxton Dixon, appeared. Close behind came June and Dr. Winston.

June and the psychiatrist took him into the house and put him to bed. "I've seen a good many like you," Nat Winston said seriously. "Many of them didn't make it. There isn't much hope for you unless you get God's help."

June, Maybelle, and Ezra Carter moved into Johnny's house and slept in sleeping bags downstairs to keep the pill pushers away. Another friend sat beside his bed that night. An old drinking buddy managed to get past the first-floor guard and into the room. The "nurse" ran him off with a butcher knife.

Johnny cried and prayed. His days and nights were filled with nightmares. He suffered excruciating cramps and hallucinated. At times he turned wild, leaping about, knocking over furniture, and pulling up carpet. After four weeks of "cold turkey," he believed the battle was won.

In November he and June visited the Baptist church in Hendersonville, a suburb north of Nashville. The pastor, Courtney Wilson, preached on "Jesus, the Living Water."

"I'm going to drink of that living water," Johnny told June. He went out and did his first concert since spending the night in the Georgia jail.

Carl Perkins, who rejoined Johnny that year, had become a slave to alcohol and was trying to fight his own way back to sanity. After a show in San Diego, Carl got drunk again. The next day the group stopped the bus near a beach to have a picnic. Carl, still hung over, began crying that he was dying. June pointed to the miracle in Johnny's life. "Call on God," she urged. "Let him help you, the way he did Johnny."

They got off the bus and left Carl in his bunk. After a while Johnny went to check on Carl and found him standing up, holding a bottle of whiskey with the tears running down his face. "I've quit, John," he declared. "If God could help you quit, he can do it for me."

Carl walked out to the surf and threw the bottle in the ocean. Above the roar of the waves, they could hear him praying, "God have mercy! Help me!" He never took another drink.

After Carl found deliverance, he wrote a song, "Daddy Sang Bass," about family life as he and Johnny had known it as boys and about the hope of eternity spent in the family circle. The song included a line about Johnny's long-dead brother Jack: "Me and little brother will join right in there"; it became a huge hit.

Johnny had given many concerts in prisons during his bad days. Now with a new song in his heart, he had a message that could truly set prisoners free. In 1968 he went back to Folsom Prison with his old pastor friend, Floyd Gressett, and recorded an album with the Statler Brothers, Marshall, Luther, and June Carter. Johnny's deacon father also went along for the visit. The hardened prisoners were overwhelmed by Johnny's testimony, and a number accepted Christ.

The Garters had become family to Johnny. Sometimes he brought his four girls—Rosanne, Kathleen, Cindy, and Tara—from California to visit Mother Maybelle, Ezra, and June. June had two daughters, Carlene and Rosey, from her failed marriage. The six girls, six to thirteen in age, had a marvelous time together.

Everyone in Nashville seemed to be pulling for June and Johnny to get married. They frequently performed together and were often seen sitting side by side in a church.

Having messed up his first marriage, Johnny was in no hurry this time. Then on a stage in London, Ontario, before 5,000 people, Johnny impulsively said, "Hey, June, will you marry me?" June blushed with embarrassment.

"Go on with the show," she urged.

The audience began shouting, "Say, yes! Say, yes!"

"OK," June finally consented. "I'll marry you."

Johnny kissed her and whispered, "I had to ask."

They were wed March 1, 1968, at a church in Franklin, Kentucky. Merle Kilgore, one of Johnny's old music buddies, was best man. Except for Merle's ripping his pocket in getting the ring out for Johnny, the ceremony went smoothly. A nonalcoholic reception, with hundreds of guests attending, was held that night at Johnny's lakeside home. The next morning the newlyweds started their first day together with Bible study.

For some time Johnny's main teacher had been June's father. Ezra Carter had hundreds of Bible commentaries and writings of the church fathers in his home. Johnny couldn't learn enough about the Bible and the growth of the early church.

If the Bible said to make restitution for past wrongs, then Johnny wanted to do it. And if the Bible said help the widows and the orphans, he wanted to do that, too. Johnny Cash had always been known for his generosity. Now his interest in helping others was increased tenfold.

When recognized for his concern for children during the International Year of the Child, Johnny said, "We are our brother's keeper. The whole future of the human race may depend on whether we reach out a helping hand to the homeless and the poor."

For all his good works and reputation for helping people, Johnny Cash has not been immune from slanderous stories in certain media. A well-known tabloid printed reports of rumors that June Cash had kicked singer Jan Howard out of their performing group after learning she was having an affair with Johnny. The story also suggested Johnny had been high on drugs when taping his latest television special and had had to cancel appearances in two Billy Graham crusades because of drinking.

Johnny told reporter friends, "I swear I've never used heroin or sniffed cocaine. I'm not on pills and haven't been since I was cured several years ago. And June and I are too much in love to ever think of being separated." He explained that both June's sisters and Jan Howard had left his employment for financial reasons: "I had lien spending more on my employees than I was making. I told them their time had come. They went peacefully and told me they loved me."

Johnny also flatly denied being spaced out on drugs during any television taping. He said he had to cancel appearances with Billy Graham because he had fallen and hurt his leg. "It's a good thing I'm a Christian," he declared. "If I wasn't, I'd break the jaws of three or four people in this town for getting those stories out."

No such stories have appeared in print about Johnny Cash since.

Johnny Cash is more popular than ever. He starred in the moving television drama, "The Pride of Jesse Hallum." He can't possibly fill all the requests for performances. At times, 30-40 fan buses are on the road leading to his lakeside home. Security guards have to be posted to keep people from leaping over the fence surrounding the house.

Since the fan pressure at Evangel Temple has become too great, he and June have been attending a small church on the outskirts of Nashville, off the route of the tour buses. Most of the worshipers are plain, working-class folks, the kind among which Johnny was raised. The pastor does all he can to protect the privacy of his celebrity members. About the man whom Country Music magazine calls "an institution in country music," the pastor says, "Johnny represents the finest tradition of human nobility and what can be done by God's grace with shattered dreams and the broken pieces of one's past."

Johnny Cash has no intention of retiring. At 75 with silver hair and a face deeply etched with the scars of former years, he'll still be greeting audiences with "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." And the purposeful stride and familiar husky quaver will always be distinctively his.

THE AUTHOR: Jim Hefley, veteran author and traveler grew, up on country music and love` it still. He looks over the world from Signal Mountain, Tennessee. Used by permission.

Excerpted from the Tyndale book How Sweet the Sound, by Jim Hefley, used by permission.

November/December 1983, Vol. 21, No. 6, Page 84

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