NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Johnny Cash’s Spiritual Journey

New Cash: Ultimate Gospel Traces His Fall and Redemption

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Johnny Cash was a world-class sinner. And also a world-class saint. His lifelong struggle with faith and his attempts to achieve grace, only to backslide time and again, remain part of the great drama of his life and career.

Now there’s a new window opening on his long spiritual odyssey with the new CD Cash: Ultimate Gospel. It covers Cash recordings over the years 1957-1981.

When Cash first went to Sun Records’ Sam Phillips in 1954, he presented himself as a gospel singer, only to be turned away when Phillips told him gospel didn’t sell. He came back and tried again, as a country singer, and landed his first recording contract. He cut at least two gospel songs at Sun that appear here: “I Was There When It Happened” and “Belshazzar” (a Cash composition). He ultimately left Sun for Columbia in 1958 when Phillips refused his request to cut a gospel album.

He ultimately never recorded a gospel album for Columbia, either, although his 1969 release Holy Land is considered an “inspirational” album. There’s a fine line when you talk religious songs. Holy Land, ironically, was cut partly in Israel just after Cash had recorded volume one of the two live bad-ass prison albums that solidified his dark image as a true outlaw. He had just finished the concert for Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, which included indirect gospel references in Folsom inmate Glen Sherley’s composition “Greystone Chapel.”

To get back to Cash’s spiritual journey, a main influence in his life was his mother Carrie, who was a devout fundamentalist and took young J.R. (as his parents named him — initials only) to her Pentecostal church and sang gospel songs to him at home. His childhood also produced a lifelong emotional scar when his older brother Jack was killed in a gruesome saw mill accident at age 14. Instead of accompanying Jack that morning, Johnny decided to go fishing instead and blamed himself forever for not being there and perhaps preventing the tragedy.

With later success in Nashville and the accompanying treadmill of non-stop touring, Cash turned to the truckers’ friend: speed. He was arrested in El Paso, Texas, in 1965 for trying to smuggle in hundreds of amphetamine pills and tranquilizers from Mexico. You can see his original police mug shot on The Smoking Gun’s Web site. He looks like a gaunt speed freak.

When he got back to Nashville, he wigged out at a Grand Ole Opry gig and smashed all the stage footlights with his mike stand. The next year, he was arrested for picking flowers in someone’s yard in Starkville, Miss., in an episode that remains murky. He later wrote the song “Starkville City Jail” about the experience, which reads in part:

I was whistlin’, pickin’ flowers, swayin’ in the Southern breeze.
I found myself surrounded; one policeman said: “That’s him.
Come along, wild flower child. Don’t you know that it’s two a.m.”

They’re bound to get you.
’Cause they got a curfew.
And you go to the Starkville City jail

Well, they emptied out my pockets, took my pills and guitar picks.
I said: “Wait, my name is …” “Aw, shut up.” Well, I sure was in a fix.

His first wife, Vivian, divorced him, and he moved into a Nashville apartment with Waylon Jennings during their “lost year” when they hid their pill stashes from each other. June Carter began trying to point him toward redemption.

The following year, he and June won a Grammy for their duet of “Jackson.” Not long thereafter, as he recalled in his autobiography, he was a “walking vision of death.” Totally strung out and depressed by speed, Cash crawled into remote Nickajack Cave near Chattanooga, Tenn., a cave that was the site of a Native American slaughter and was also a Confederate soldiers’ hideout during the battle of Lookout Mountain. Cash, high on speed, crawled deep into the cave to die. Eventually, he had a revelation from God and slowly crawled back out, finding June and his mother at the cave entrance, as he wrote in his autobiography.

Interestingly, Gary Allan recorded “Nickajack Cave (Johnny Cash’s Redemption)” on his recent CD Tough All Over, which he cut after his own wife’s suicide.

Johnny and June wed in 1968 and lived happily ever after, except when temptation crept in. In 1983, he was attacked by his ostrich on his animal park, resulting in several broken ribs and severe stomach damage. He became addicted to painkillers and subsequently entered the Betty Ford Clinic for rehab.

So, Cash had sufficient motivation for redemption and spirituality throughout his life. He performed on many Billy Graham crusades, beginning in the 1970s. Also in the ’70s, he financed and filmed the movie The Holy Land in Israel, for which many churches held special screenings. He wrote a novel, The Man in White, about the apostle Paul. And he recorded the entire New Testament onto cassette tape (later released on CDs). He went on to earn a theology degree through correspondence school.

This is a very satisfying collection of 24 Cash gospel gems over the years. Three cuts have never been released: “My Ship Will Sail,” “How Great Thou Art” and “It Is No Secret.” The musical touchstone here for me is the Johnny-June duet on “Far Side Banks of Jordan.” It was recorded 27 years before their deaths, but it is such a tender expression of true love and devotion that I find it emotionally touching to this day.

Cash was, his family reported, totally at spiritual peace when he died. Which is reassuring to know. And his long-awaited gospel album — recorded at his mother’s urging years before — was finally released. My Mother’s Hymn Book is a stirring CD in the five-CD boxed set Johnny Cash: Unearthed. And Ultimate Gospel is a fitting closure to his long recording career.