The Man in Black: Faith, Heaven and Hell
by Robin Tierney
"Johnny Cash was my preacher. His songs awoke my faith at a time when things had spun out of control."
The man sharing this memory had met me just moments earlier, but rubbing elbows in the Johnny Cash Museum has a way of making strangers feel like kin.
Opened in 2013, the Nashville museum attracts crowds as thick as those in honky-tonks around the corner. And no wonder— in decades of incredibly powerful songs, Cash, born February 26, 1932, addressed life's struggles, temptations, and redemption like no other.
The collection—which includes guitars; sheets of handwritten lyrics; school, military, and stage photos; furnishings from his home; and ready-to-play recordings of many of his 1,500 songs come from collectors, including the museum's founder, Bill Miller. The museum conveys the legendary songwriter's deep spirituality and life-long crusade to uplift the downtrodden. It reveals how an Arkansas farm boy who listened to the Louvin Brothers' country gospel on a radio became the passionate, compassionate "Man in Black."
Museum displays reveal that Cash was the only artist to have songs on the Billboard charts in six consecutive decades and to be inducted in the Rock, Country, and Songwriters Halls of Fame.
Did you know that after auditioning at Sun Records in 1954, Cash wanted to make gospel records, but producer Sam Phillips pushed him to rockabilly? And that Cash, who wrote "Folsom Prison Blues" and played concerts at prisons, met with presidents and testified before Congress to lobby for prison reform?
This man believed in redemption and always credited God for redeeming him and for enabling him to battle addictions and channel his convictions about social justice (for Native Americans, veterans, and others) into music. A devout Christian, Cash discussed spirituality with Bob Dylan, became close friends with Rev. Billy Graham and sung at his crusades, made a spoken-word recording of the New Testament, and wrote a novel about the apostle Paul.
Cash insisted on including at least one gospel song on every album. The old spiritual "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?" appeared on an album with "Ring of Fire." Before his death in 2003, Cash recorded "God's Gonna Cut You Down" (a.k.a. "Run On"), a traditional folk song that serves warnings to "the rambler, the gambler, the back-biter." Then there's "When the Man Comes Around." Bookended by verses from Revelations, the song advises:
Whoever is unjust let him be unjust still
Whoever is righteous let him be righteous still
Whoever is filthy let him be filthy still
Listen to the words long written down
When the man comes around.
"So many can relate to his lyrics and life," says James Akenson, a Tennessee Tech professor and founder of the International Country Music Conference. After meeting at the museum, we talked about country music's heaven versus hell dichotomy, which continues to resound in Nashville's honky-tonks and recording studios. Dr. Akenson noted how Cash's lyrics spoke of struggling with temptations and conquering demons with faith.
"There's a constant tension in Southern culture reflected in its music: raising hell and respecting moral boundaries guided by faith," says Dr. Akenson. It's a core theme in country music: "Have demons and then get saved."
We both observed that Johnny Cash did a lot of living in one life.
Which reminds me of "The Wanderer," a track from U2's Zooropa featuring Cash on lead vocals. He tells of a man searching for God in a post-Apocalyptic world:
I went out searching, looking for one good man
A spirit who would not bend or break
Who could sit at his father's right hand
I went out walking with a Bible and a gun
The word of God lay heavy on my heart
I was sure I was the one
Now Jesus, don't you wait up
Jesus, I'll be home soon.
Robin Tierney, an award-winning arts and outdoors writer based in the South, can be reached at email@example.com.