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Johnny Cash: Man of Faith (2003)

He struggled with spirituality but emerged a messenger of God.

Originally published in the 2003 Johnny Cash Special from the editors of Country Weekly. This story is presented here in its entirety.

Man of Faith

It’s a sweltering Sunday morning in the little church in Dyess, Ark., and 10-year-old J.R. Cash—no one calls him “Johnny” yet—is getting antsy. The preacher is laying the fire and brimstone on thick today, but J.R. is waiting for some real inspiration.

“I learned to sit through the scary sermons just to hear the music,” he later recalled. “Hell might be on the horizon, but the wonderful gospel-spiritual songs carried me above it.”
In that Pentecostal church, love of God, fear of damnation, hope for heaven and a serious desire for music were all blurring together in young J.R.’s mind until it was hard to know which was which. A life-or-death struggle was beginning, a push and pull between the sacred and profane that would mark his work and his life for decades.

He cast his lot with God at age 12. As the choir sang “Just As I Am,” J.R. walked down the aisle of that intimidating but musical church to accept Jesus as his personal lord and savior—and he never turned his back on his religion, though he often defied his own spiritual conscience as drugs and his own rebellious spirit got the better of him.

His faith was shored up early on when brother Jack died—reporting, moments before passing away, the vision of Heaven he was seeing. The already-devout family took this as proof of the afterlife. “We watched him die in such bliss and glory,” Johnny once wrote, “that it was like we were almost happy because of the way we saw him go. “

In late 1954, when 22-year-old Johnny arrived at Sun Studios in Memphis, he wanted more than anything to be a gospel singer. Sun owner Sam Phillips wasn’t interested, so Johnny returned with a few secular songs. But Johnny clung to the notion of singing gospel—he jumped to Columbia Records after three years at Sun partly because they would let him do just that. Hymns by Johnny Cash was released in 1959, and he continued to make gospel albums every few years and include spiritual songs in his shows.

As the ‘60s wore on, Johnny was caught in the grip of a ruthless amphetamine addiction, until new love June Carter helped him turn away from drugs and back to religion. He saw both sides of life, and never forgot what the darker one looked like—and never stopped singing about things like murder and violence, either.

“There’s nothing hypocritical about it,” he once declared. “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. “ He entered the ‘70s with a renewed faith, eager to express his love of God in every way possible. In 1973, he co-wrote, produced, narrated and scored The Gospel Road, a movie about the life of Jesus filmed in Israel and featuring June Carter as Mary Magdalene. In the ‘80s he wrote Man in White, a novel based on the life of St. Paul.

And, of course, he never stopped singing the gospel—and never forgot those scary images the Pentecostal preachers summoned up in his young mind back in Arkansas. “The Man Comes Around,” the title cut from his last album, is an apocalyptic vision of the return of Jesus Christ.

A few years ago, Johnny compiled a three-CD, thematically divided box set of his music called Love God Murder. The God disc, naturally, was a collection of sprititual tunes. In the liner notes, U2 lead singer Bono—who worked with Johnny on his band’s 1993 song “The Wanderer“—summed up his hero’s approach to spirituality.

“Johnny Cash doesn’t sing to the damned, he sings with the damned,” he wrote. “And sometimes you feel he might prefer their company.”

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