Johnny Cash Walked the Line

There used to be a place near the Tennessee River just north of Chattanooga known as Nickajack Cave. It took its name from the tribe of Indians slaughtered there by Andrew Jackson and his army. The opening of the cave was 150 feet wide by 50 feet high, and because of its depth, it presented a formidable place to hide. It was also used as a refuge during the Civil War. Confederate soldiers holed up there during the battle of Lookout Mountain, and before the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the cave opening, it was rumored that the ghosts of both sets of the dead—Indians and Confederates—haunted the cave.

One night, at the pinnacle of his career and the height of his musical power, Johnny Cash, high on amphetamines and full of despair, drove down to Nickajack Cave to kill himself. He knew the cave from going there to search for Civil War and Native American artifacts, and he was well acquainted with the fact that many spelunkers had died deep inside Nickajack’s byzantine architecture. He wanted death, and the cave was just the place for it. “If I crawled in far enough,” he said, “I’d never be able to find my way back out, and nobody would be able to locate me until after I was dead. . .” So he crawled on his hands and knees for what seemed like hours in the pitch black, doped out of his mind, until his flashlight ran out. Completely disoriented and alone, Johnny Cash lay down in the belly of Nickajack cave to die. That was the fall of 1967.

How he eventually arrived at that cave goes back to his childhood. The son of a cotton farmer in Arkansas, young J.R. (as he was then called) lived with his parents and brothers on a co-op farm, picking cotton as soon as he was old enough to shoulder half a day-laborer’s sack.

The Cash family was poor, but what they lacked financially they made up for in familial bonds. J.R. was particularly close to his oldest brother Jack. They would spend long hours in the fields, getting into all sorts of mischief and defending one another from their obdurate father. According to J.R., Jack was the strong one; he was full of promise and worthy of the entirety of a younger brother’s admiration. J.R. idealized Jack. He saw in his older brother everything he thought he wasn’t but wanted to be—someone who was strong, Christian and doted upon by his Father.

Then one day, while at work on a table saw, Jack was accidentally pulled onto the table and run across the blade. He was torn open from the chest to the groin. The injuries were gruesome and lethal, but miraculously, Jack managed to survive for a few days— the doctors even thought he might make a recovery. But eventually Jack died in the family home, while young J.R. and the entire Cash family looked on. Before the end, he announced that he could see heaven and the angels, and that they were beautiful. Then he quietly passed.

The death of his brother (foretold to him in a dream by an angel), lingered heavy in Cash’s thoughts to his dying day, and fueled the two characteristics that defined him: his toughness and his deep, abiding faith in God. His singing career was the child born of those traits, and the bedrock of it all was his matchless voice.

When Cash hit puberty his voice dropped to the rich baritone that would eventually make him famous. He always loved to sing, and when he first emitted that deep growl for his mother, she declared it “a gift from God.” His father was not so amused. He told John that he “ought not waste time” on such frivolous things as singing. A struggling cotton farmer already missing one able-bodied son had no need for a musician. But John knew his gift was something special and trusted his mother’s instincts. Fueled by the gaping hole his brother’s absence left and sure of God’s blessing, he struck out for Nashville to record a gospel album.

Johnny Cash was discovered by (or rather, introduced himself to) the legendary producer Sam Phillips at Sun Studios in Memphis during the spring of 1955. Phillips, however, wasn’t interested in gospel. He said it wouldn’t sell, and asked Cash if he had any other tunes. Disappointed but undaunted, Cash proceeded to sing covers of a number of hit records from the time, but none of them seemed to strike Phillips’ fancy. Then Cash broke out a tune of his own about a passenger on a train ("Hey Porter!"). Phillips loved the locomotive/rockabilly rhythm of the song and Cash’s music career---and signature sound--- was born.

Johnny Cash enjoyed almost immediate success in those early years, writing songs for the Sun label and touring incessantly with luminaries including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and other Sun Records greats. Their music was a revolution, but the blessings came hand in hand with the curse of drugs. Long nights on the road, frenetic shows and more money than they could spend meant that drugs were easy to come by, if not necessary for survival. Even though Cash was firmly grounded in his faith, he was no exception to the burgeoning rock and roll rule: If you can’t keep up with the pace, don’t slow down, take amphetamines.

Cash took his first amphetamine while on the road in 1957. It was a small Benzedrine pill ironically etched with the marking of a cross. A doctor had given him the pills when he complained about his inability to meet the grueling demands of the road. Cash later recalled that the uppers turned him on “like electricity flowing through a lightbulb.” He only had to take them one time and he was hooked. It wasn’t too long before he was playing his shows high all the time, even going so far as singing spirituals and recording gospel albums while stoned. On his bad days, he was taking downers to quell the spikes of the uppers and then more uppers to get the same high that the downers had cut. Though his music career was wildly successful, his life began to spin out of control. He would later recall in his autobiography, “The person starts taking the drugs, but then the drugs start taking the person, that’s what happened to me.”

Thankfully salvation (one of the many instances in John’s life) arrived in the unlikely form of June Carter late in the winter of 1961. The Carter Family---country music legends in their own right--- joined Cash’s tour as an opening act that year, and though both John and June were married at the time, there was an immediate attraction between them. As the years went by, June looked out for John. She supported him when he was down and out. She calmed him when he was in a rage; she stole his heart. Two years after that fateful first tour, June co-authored the Cash hit “Ring of Fire.” The song is an ode to her love for John, as well as a nod to the intractability of that desire given the circumstances of their mutual marriages to other people.

The taste of love is sweet
when hearts like ours meet
I fell for you like a child
oh, but the fire went wild….
("Ring of Fire")

Eventually they would get married and carry one another into old age, but not before things became much worse. June Carter’s love wasn’t enough to take Cash off the destructive path that led him into the depths of Nickajack cave.

Sitting in the dark soil and blackness of that cave, high on drugs, his first marriage crumbling under the weight of his infidelity with June, Johnny Cash lay down to die. He later wrote in his autobiography that “the absolute lack of light was appropriate, for at that moment I was as far from God as I have ever been. My separation from Him, the deepest and most ravaging of the various kinds of loneliness I’d felt over the years, seemed finally complete.”

He lay in the darkness for hours feeling sorry for himself--- for the lives he had ruined and the body that he’d abused---but down in those unfathomable depths everything changed. His mind became clear and he started focusing on God. He realized he wasn’t in charge of his own destiny, that he was going to die at God’s time, not his. With no idea how to get out of the cave, he decided to blindly crawl in search of the light. He did this aimlessly for some time until he felt a breeze on his back and followed it to the cave opening. Miraculously he had made it out of the cave that had claimed the lives of so many others. What’s more, June Carter and his mother were there at the cave's entrance. Apparently Cash’s mother “knew something was wrong” and had flown all the way from California to find her beloved J.R. and help him.

Johnny Cash left a tremendous musical legacy when he passed away two years ago. His prison shows at Folsom and San Quentin broke down barriers and exposed injustices that were right in our backyards (not to mention the fact that they are two of the finest live albums ever recorded). He also championed Native American rights in his song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” He did big tent revival work with Billy Graham. And he reinvented himself in his later years by working tirelessly with legendary rap producer Rick Rubin, garnering a whole new generation of fans. Cash was the godfather of rockabilly and arguably one of the greatest crossover artists of our time.

More than anything, however, what happened in Nickajack defines the man and his music. Something about the ground in that cave and the utter hopelessness Cash experienced best captures the apogee of his darkness and the meaning of the light. Cash knew how it felt to be a miserable sinner, what it meant to build and destroy, and he knew how far grace would go to bring him back. That gave him a unique point of view. He sang with the sinners. He considered himself chief among them and knew that if he could be forgiven, they could too.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.. .
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold… ("Man In Black")

The Bible says that the kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed, barely noticeable to the eye, but planted in the proper ground, it’s like a tree that overtakes all the other trees in the garden. It becomes a place that brings shade to the prisoner, the sick, the drugged-out, the lost, the imprisoned and the unloved of the world. It is a place of comfort, belonging and solidarity. In the music, life and legacy of Johnny Cash, I hear and see the kingdom of God sprouting up through the soil of one very broken man, in black.

Copyright© 2005 Christopher Stratton