How Hollywood De-Christianized Johnny Cash
Celebrating the musical legend on the week of his birth

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash (Twentieth Century Fox)


Lee Habeeb

One story that should have made it into the movie took place during a low point in Cash’s life, in the 1990s, 30 miles west of Chattanooga in the Nickajack Cave, an underground warren that’s home to over 100,000 bats. According to Turner, Cash spent time there earlier in his life, hunting for treasures such as Indian arrowheads and items left behind by Confederate soldiers. But on this occasion, Cash had different plans.

This is what Cash told the writer Nick Tosches in 1995:

I just felt like I was at the end of the line. I was down there by myself and I got to feelin’ that I took 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.

He was going there to commit suicide. And that’s when things got really interesting. Cash continued:

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.

That would have been quite a scene in Walk the Line. But it never made it to the screen.

In August 1969, hundreds of thousands of young Americans gathered at Woodstock to watch Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, and others perform. It was a wet and wild affair as the counterculture asserted itself into the mainstream. Just two weeks later, Johnny Cash closed out his music-variety show on ABC with a Gospel song. It was a remarkable version of “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?” Always, to the end, Cash was a countercultural figure. Always a rebel.

Perhaps his most famous recordings were the ones he made in prisons, especially his two shows at Folsom Prison. Cash seemed at home there. He didn’t see himself as better than those men. He was just one of the guys, and understood the prisoners in ways they realized, without his ever saying anything. It didn’t hurt that he’d written some of his best songs from the point of view of condemned and convicted men. The inmates loved him for that. America loved him for that.

“He doesn’t sing for the damned,” Bono once commented about Cash, “he sings with the damned.” That was the true mark of Cash’s Christian walk: the empathy he had for the men and women often overlooked in our society. Prisoners; the hardworking field workers in rural America; the down-and-out and downtrodden; those of us struggling with personal demons, the kind that rob from us the best parts of ourselves.

When Cash got serious about his faith, and left the women and alcohol behind, some of his old friends were not very happy with him. “They’d rather I be in prison than church,” Cash admitted. Waylon Jennings was especially tough on Cash, according to Turner, accusing him of “selling out to religion.”

“He’d be attacked by agnostics and atheists if he appeared too pious,” explained Turner, “and he would be denounced by the religious community if he appeared too worldly.”

Talk about a tough line Cash had to walk. But he tried to walk it.

Cash was once asked how he was able to reach so many people with his message without ever hiding his faith. He had a simple, superb answer. “I am not a Christian artist,” he explained. “I am an artist who is Christian.”

Cash was revered by artists of every genre, from hip-hop to rock. Springsteen and Bono, Snoop Dogg and Trent Reznor all admired the openly Evangelical southern man. And all because Cash transcended stereotypes, and transcended musical categories.

He even transcended time, something few pop stars manage. His 2002 acoustic take on the Nine Inch Nails song about heroin addiction — “Hurt” — was about as courageous a recording as any ever made by a popular artist. Cash, who was 70, found an entire new generation of fans with that stark MTV video.

Thus was the universal appeal of the man called Cash. And that is the universal appeal of a man called Christ.

Steven Turner’s biography of Cash ends so beautifully that it is worth closing with his words:

The realm that Johnny Cash lived in was clouded by pain and colored by grace. He had the ability to transform the rough and commonplace into objects fit for heaven, just as he had been transformed. Rick Rubin remembers him taking Ewan McColl’s song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and turning it from a love song into a devotional song. “He loved that,” said Rubin. “It came really natural to him. It seemed like his devotion for life came from his devotion for God.”

— Lee Habeeb is vice president of content at Salem Radio Network.