Entertainment

How Hollywood Secularized Johnny Cash, a Man of Great Faith

Here's the side of the musician you didn’t see in the film 'Walk the Line,' released 12 years ago this weekend

Johnny Cash had two loves, and we all met one of them thanks to the biopic “Walk the Line,” which was released in 2005. Her name was June Carter.

But Cash had another love. A higher love. One never mentioned by name in the movie: Jesus Christ.

There are some hints about that other love in the film. In an early scene, a young Cash, played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix, is auditioning for the man he hopes might make him the next Elvis Presley: Sam Phillips, the Sun Records impresario. Cash walks into the small Memphis studio and begins playing a Gospel song.

Phillips isn’t moved and tells Cash he should play something more meaningful — more relevant. “No one listens to Gospel anymore,” Phillips said to the young Cash.

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Cash plays a secular song, gets signed, and the rest was history — at least in the movie version. But it turns out that in real life, Cash never stopped playing Gospel music. Almost a quarter of the songs he wrote were in some way about his faith or the Bible. In addition, Cash recorded the entire King James version of the New Testament, performed at many Billy Graham revivals, and even made a movie about the life of Jesus. In his spare time, Cash studied the Bible more than most Ph.D.s in divinity. Somehow, none of that made it onto the screen during the 136-minute running time of “Walk the Line.”

Stripping Jesus Christ out of Johnny Cash’s life story is like leaving naked 19-year-old girls out of Hugh Hefner’s — or telling the story of Jackie Robinson without mentioning his race or segregation. It’s that serious an omission.

Even Cash’s secular music was driven by his Christian worldview, especially the way he wrote about his struggles with sin. “Cash’s strength as a Christian writer was his compassion born from experience,” wrote Steve Turner in his terrific book, “A Man Called Cash.” “He wrote of sin, not as it affected other people, but as something with which he’d become intimately acquainted.”

Unlike his peers, most of whom glamorized sin and licentiousness, Cash wrestled with both in his best music. Indeed, the tension between the flesh and spirit, between things of this earth and of heaven, animated almost all of his music.

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It’s what drew audiences to him, these metaphysical struggles. Sin and redemption, good and evil, selfishness and selflessness, and the burden of living by a standard set not by man but by God — they all were driving forces in Cash’s life and work. Here are the opening lyrics to his first number-one Billboard hit, “Walk the Line,” the song after which his biopic was named.

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.

I keep my eyes wide open all the time.

I keep the ends out for the tie that binds.

Because you’re mine, I walk the line.

That’s just a touch deeper lyrically than “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” both famously covered and performed by Elvis Presley. That’s because Cash wasn’t walking just any line. He was trying his best to walk a Christian line.

In that walk, he sometimes succeeded — and often failed. What made Cash special was his openness about those failings. He spoke plainly about his womanizing, his bouts with drug addiction, and the toll those episodes took on his loved ones and himself.

“You don’t think about anyone else,” Cash said later in life. “You think about yourself and where your next stash is coming from. Or your next drink. I wasted a lot of time and energy. I mean, we’re not talking days, but years.”

Believers and nonbelievers alike know such struggles. That’s what attracted so many people to Cash’s music: his humility and his empathy.

Many great stories about Cash’s faith should have made it to the big screen in 2005, but didn’t. The most harrowing one happened 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. Cash spent time there earlier in his life hunting for Indian arrowheads and other treasures left by Confederate soldiers. On this occasion, however, Cash had different plans.

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Cash told the story to 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 OK.”

He had entered that cave to never leave it. He’d gone there to end his life — then the story got 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.”

“I don’t know how I got out, ‘cept God got me out.”

That would have been quite a scene in “Walk the Line.”

Here’s another story. In August 1969, hundreds of thousands of young people gathered at Woodstock to watch Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and others perform. It was a wild affair as the counterculture asserted itself in America. Two weeks later, Johnny Cash decided to close out his music variety show on ABC with a Gospel song. It was a stripped-down version of “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?”

Always, to the end, Cash was a countercultural figure. A countercultural figure even to the counterculture. Always, Johnny was a rebel.

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Cash made some of his best recordings in prisons. He seemed at home there. He was one of the guys and understood the inmates in ways they realized without his ever having to say 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.

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“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 people often overlooked in our society: prisoners, field workers in rural America, the down and out, the downtrodden, people struggling with personal demons. Those demons rob from us the very best parts of ourselves.

Cash knew those struggles. Born in a poor part of Arkansas, he moved at three years of age to Dyess, Arkansas, where he worked the cotton fields. He lived through the Great Depression and saw his father struggle to make ends meet.

Turner described Johnny Cash’s early life in his book: “By the time he was six years old, Cash, when not in school, was helping out in the cotton field. The work was tiring and tedious. The increasing weight of the sack hurt his back, and the sharp spikes on the cotton heads cut his hands. Yet, when he looked back on his cotton-picking days, he didn’t remember the pain, but only the love he learned for the land and the respect for diligence.”

It seemed almost every phase of Cash’s life included struggle. When he got serious about his faith, and left the women and drugs behind, some of his old friends weren’t happy with him. “They’d rather I be in prison than church,” Cash admitted.

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Waylon Jennings was especially tough on Cash, 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.”

It was a tough line, the line Cash was trying to walk — the line all Christians try their best to walk between our worldly and spiritual lives.

When asked how he was able to reach so many people with his message without hiding his faith, Cash said this: “I’m not a Christian artist. I’m an artist who is Christian.”

“I’m not a Christian artist. I’m an artist who is Christian.”

Cash was revered by artists of every genre, from hip-hop to rock. Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and Snoop Dogg all admired the evangelical Southern man. He transcended musical stereotypes and categories — he even transcended time.

Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” was originally written about the pain of heroin addiction. Cash’s 2002 acoustic take turned it into a reflection on his own mortality.

“The truth of fading beauty, forgotten earthly achievements, and broken human bonds, powerfully and yet wordlessly seep from the screen,” Steve Turner said when describing the music video, which peaks emotionally when Cash sings these words:

What have I become, my sweetest friend?

Everyone I know goes away in the end.

“I started crying after that verse, and trembling, it was so devastating,” recalled Cash’s daughter, Roseanne. Cash asked her if he should release it and let it play on MTV. “Absolutely,” she replied. “You are very brave.”

Cash, who was 70 when he recorded the song, discovered an entire new generation of fans with that video. And they discovered him.

In one of the last interviews he gave just months before he died, he told Kurt Loder of Rolling Stone he knew his life was coming to a close. “I expect my life to end pretty soon,” he said. “But I have great faith.”

When asked about the regrets he had in his life, Cash said he didn’t have any. “I forgave myself. God forgave me. I figured I’d better do it, too.”

“My father had a way of embracing his shortcomings, claiming them and exposing them,” his son John said about Cash’s most redeeming virtue. In one memorable talk at a Billy Graham crusade, Cash talked about a group of people who held a special place in his heart — and life.

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“I spend a lot of my time working with drug addicts and alcoholics, and only someone who’s had such a problem can have complete love and compassion and understanding for such people. I love drug addicts. And I love alcoholics,” Cash said. “And if some lost lonely person somewhere out there in a dirty bed or a dark room can see the light of Jesus Christ in me, that is my reward.”

How all of this, and so much more, did not work its way into “Walk The Line” is anyone’s guess.

Here’s hoping a filmmaker one day tells the story of Cash’s long walk with the other true love of his life — Jesus Christ — and the overwhelming number of Americans who have taken, and are still taking, that long walk with him.

Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

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