Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Johnny Cash released incredible records. 'Don't Take Your Guns to Town', 'I Got Stripes', 'Ring of Fire', 'Understand Your Man' and 'The Ballad of Ira Hayes' all hit the top of the charts and made his career a roaring success at an alarming rate; but his life was spinning out of control and the only way he could keep up was by taking pills. After many drug-riddled years addicted to alcohol and barbiturates, as well as amphetamines, he was able to climb back from the lowest pits he found himself in – thanks to his faith and his second wife, June Carter – and reinvented himself.
With such monumental highs and lows spread throughout his life, it is perhaps no wonder that his beliefs – both political and religious – often seemed to clash with his actions. In this blog we take a look at the Man in Black's mass of contradictions and internal conflicts, and how they strengthened his faith and made him human.
I Walk The Line
It's probably true to say that Johnny Cash fought demons almost every day of his life as his addiction never really went away, but he kept working right up until his death in 2003. He once said, 'I've always felt there's a war going on inside of me … good fighting against evil.' This was evident in his relationship with drugs. He often said that he had given up. For many years he said that, while high, he had climbed into a cave on the Tennessee River and had laid down to die. But, he claimed, God had helped him to find his way out, where his wife June and his mother were waiting for him. He swore he had been so incredibly lucky and that he would never take another pill. But there are many accounts of him taking drugs afterwards, and it was pointed out in his biography by Robert Hilburn that the cave would likely have been underwater on the day Cash claimed he was there. These moments of supposed hope, and recognition of his problem, were mixed with moments of deep despair and desperation.
Cash would often get prescriptions from many different doctors to keep up with the amount of pills he needed. He admitted that there was not a drug he hadn't tried. The drugs would also caused him to have rages that he took out on himself, or objects around him. His first wife, Vivian, was struggling to help him and eventually filed for divorce in 1966. His life went from low to lower as just a year later he was involved in a car crash and arrested for posession of prescription drugs. It is thought that this led to his suicide attempt later in the year. And yet, despite his deep lows, he was able to keep his faith. His brother Jack, who died at just 15 years old in an accident with a power saw on their farm, was always on his mind. 'There's never been two months gone by that I haven't dreamed about him,' he said. 'He's tried to help turn me to the Christian way of life.'
His Christianity played a huge role in his songs as well as his life with June. In 1971 they set off to the Holy Land to film and record a documentary of the life of Jesus, called Gospel Road. Cash was the narrator and June played Mary Magdalene, and when it released in 1973 it was a big moment for their marriage. June was struggling herself with an addiction to pills and their faith kept the pair on-track as much as possible. The year that Gospel Road was released was also the year that he acknowledged his Christianity publicly for the first time, standing on stage with Billy Graham and Cliff Richard. He would also go on to do biblical recordings such as, Johnny Cash Reads The Complete New Testament.
Johnny Cash's struggles with addiction were a part of who he was, but they were not all of who he was and he will be remembered for the incredible music he brought into the world.
If you’re a fan of the icon that is the Man In Black, then you can read more about him in our Flame Tree Music book Johnny Cash: Walking on Fire (ISBN: 978-1-78361-313-7), which is now available through our website, or here on Amazon. You can also find the ebook here.
- Take a look at the official Johnny Cash website here.
- Keep up with all the latest Cash gossip on his Facebook page here.
- Journey through the Man In Black's detailed biography here.