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Trade Paperback
224 pages
Jul 2003
Relevant Books

Spiritual Journeys: How Faith Has Influenced Twelve Music Icons

by Steve Beard

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

One gets the distinct impression that when Johnny Cash first lays eyes on St. Peter, he’ll have a guitar slung around his neck and will be looking for a microphone. The Man in Black never seemed satisfied with any kind of retirement plan—and we are all the beneficiaries of his work ethic. “So many times, when there would be something I’d have to do that I didn’t have my heart in, I’d say, ‘All I ever wanted to do was play my guitar and sing a simple song,’”

Cash said. “And that’s still all I want to do.” His 2002 release, The Man Comes Around, embodied the jagged and prophetic sound that has marked his career—and testified to the fact that, at age seventy, he still had more grit and bang than all the newfangled pop stars combined. One of the surprising hits on the album was Cash’s rendition of “Hurt” written by dark and brooding Trent Reznor of the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails.

I hurt myself today/ To see if I still feel/ I focus on the pain/ The only thing that’s real, Cash sang. The needle tears a hole/ The old familiar sting/ Try to kill it all away/ But I remember everything—a poignant reminder of his dark years in the 1960s. “I think ‘Hurt’ is the best anti-drug song I ever heard,” Cash said. “It’s a song about a man’s pain and what we’re capable of doing to ourselves and the possibility that we don’t have to do that anymore. I could relate to that from the very beginning.”2 He said, “I would have written something like that in the ’60s, if I had been that good.”3

When the video for the song was released, it became a fascinating crossover hit, being played on MTV, VH-1, and CMT. Director Mark Romanek spliced together one of the most vivid and moving visual portraits of Cash’s illustrative career. Footage was gleaned from his early years, prison concerts, walking through the Holy Land, and hopping a boxcar. Cash was shown sitting behind a piano as well as strumming his guitar in his all-so-familiar black apparel.

Interspersed throughout the video was the backdrop of the famous House of Cash museum in Tennessee—sitting in disrepair, having never fully recuperated from flood damage. The museum served as a metaphor for Cash’s physical condition—weak, willing, and in pain. Cash was seated behind a grand table spread generously with meat and fish. With trembling hand, he poured a glass of red wine over the food as he sang, You could have it all/ My empire of dirt/ I will let you down/ I will make you hurt.

The face of Jesus appears; first, as a portrait, and later footage is taken from Gospel Road, a movie on the life of Christ that Cash produced with his own finances in the 1970s. As the nails are driven in the hands of his Savior, a concert audience cheers with glee.

Never before in the history of music videos has there been such a rattling reminder of youth, aging, and the sometimes agonizing trek through the twilight years. “Mortality is a very unusual topic for this medium,” Romanek said. “But I ascribe most of the power to the Johnny Cash-ness of it all.”4

Trent Reznor was in the studio with Zach de la Rocha, the former lead singer of Rage Against the Machine, when he received the video. “By the end I was really on the verge of tears,” Reznor said. “At the end of it, there was just dead silence. There was, like, this moist clearing of our throats and then, ‘Uh, okay, let’s get some coffee.’”5

Cash’s producer Rick Rubin cried when he saw it for the first time. “I spoke to (U2 singer) Bono and he compared what Johnny is doing now to what Elvis Presley did in the 1950s,” Rubin said. “Then, Elvis represented a new youth culture and it shocked and terrified everyone because culture wasn’t about youth before him. Now we live in a youth culture and Johnny Cash is showing the experience of a much older generation. It’s just as radical.”6

Life, death, drugs, Jesus, pain, joy, disappointment, and success were all wrapped together in that video—the essential elements of Johnny Cash’s career and life’s work. “Life isn’t just for living, it’s for singing about,” he wrote in the liner notes for his 1977 album The Rambler. “Loneliness is real, the pain of loss is real, the fulfillment of love is real, the thrill of adventure is real, and to put it in the song lyrics and sing about it—after all, isn’t that what a country singer-writer is supposed to do, write and sing of reality?”

The title track, “The Man Comes Around,” has been widely heralded as one of Cash’s greatest songs. Seven years ago in Nottingham, England, he had a dream where he found himself in Buckingham Palace in the presence of Queen Elizabeth, who was sitting on the floor. She looked at him and said, “Johnny Cash, you’re just like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.”

The dream slipped his mind for a few years, but then it began to vividly haunt him. Stumped by the peculiar phrase, he finally ran across the word “whirlwind” in the Bible, leading him on a lengthy hunt through concordances and reference books. He ended up going on an extensive study of Judgment Day and the Book of Revelation.

“I’ve wanted to write a spiritual that would be worthy of recording,” he said. “I worked really hard on this song. I worked for five or six months on this song. I finally realized where I was going with it—kind of a spiritual odyssey of the apocalypse. This is my apocalyptic song.”7

The song is about the day of reckoning and the notion that there will be an accounting for the way in which we live on earth. “It’s a gospel song,” Cash collaborator Marty Stuart said of the song. “It is the most strangely marvelous, wonderful, gothic, mysterious, Christian thing that only God and Johnny Cash could create together”—perhaps the finest tribute that can be paid to a songwriter.8

Everybody won’t be treated the same, Cash sang, There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down when the man comes around. He has seen that golden ladder swinging down from heaven on several occasions in his latter years. Perhaps that is why death does not rattle him. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think about death at all,” he said. “What is there to think about? I enjoy my life now.”9

In 1997, Cash was in a coma for twelve days. Doctors told the family to expect the end. But June Carter Cash, his wife, had different plans. She got on the Internet and asked fans around the world to pray for Cash on an upcoming Tuesday evening. “On that night—while fans prayed around the world—Cash’s family gathered around his bed in the intensive care unit, held hands, and joined

in prayer,” reported Billboard magazine. “Within hours, he finally emerged from his coma.”

“It was incredible,” said Cash’s longtime manager, Lou Robbin. “He was in critical condition at that point, and the next morning he had turned the corner.” June said she had no other choice but to pray:

“They really thought they were gonna lose him—we all thought we were losing him. He was in this coma—just down so far that there seemed to be no way to reach him—and I couldn’t think of any thing but to pray. So we prayed, and within a matter of hours, he just started squeezin’ my hand.”10


Johnny Cash is one of the most significant patriarchs in modern American music. Launched into fame because of hits such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ring of Fire,” and “I Walk the Line.” He has sold more than 50 million records and won eleven Grammys. He is the only person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Cash worked with legends such as Elvis and Dylan and performed before presidents and prisoners. He has written books, hosted a popular television show, starred in and produced movies, and has recorded 1,500 songs that can be found on 500 albums. He remains today, the crowned king of blue-collar troubadours. Cash has the lurching height of a NBA forward, the distinctive facial features of a cleanly-shaven Abe Lincoln, the swagger of John Wayne, and the perceived moral authority of Moses.

Few things divide parents and their kids like popular music. Enmity between the music of one generation and that of the next seems to be a fact of life. Perhaps that is one of the reasons God gifted Johnny Cash. Like no other artist, he seems to have an uncanny ability to bridge the chasm between age groups. Cash has had a special magnetism spanning five decades of popular culture. He is, after all, an American original with few peers.

“Locust and honey … not since John the Baptist has there been a voice like that crying in the wilderness,” U2’s Bono summed it up. “The most male voice in Christendom. Every man knows he is a sissy compared to Cash’s cross-generational appeal may have a lot to do with the fact that he writes songs the man on the street—or perhaps more appropriately, the guy hanging out in the alley—can relate to. He loves prisoners, the working man, and the welfare mother—those found on the outskirts. “Those are my heroes: the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the disenfranchised,” Cash said. “Ain’t no end to street people. There’s no end to the people of the margins. There’s no end to the people who can relate to that.”12

His songwriting repertoire includes tales of injustice and stories of redemption. His recent three-album collection is titled Love God Murder. What you see is what you get with Cash. He is as cool as Siberian steel. When he sings, you can almost taste the hillbilly moonshine, smell the sulfur of a smoking gun, and feel the drops of blood off the thorny crown of a crucified Christ.


Cash was brought up as a Depression-era Arkansas farm boy. His family scraped at twenty acres of government-granted land, depending on soil and sweat to eek out a living. He had Baptist blood racing through his veins and the echoes of Pentecostal fire and brimstone preaching reverberating through his soul. He came from a white trash culture that depended on the white light of religion.

“The first preachers I heard at a Pentecostal church in Dyness, Arkansas, scared me,” Cash wrote in the liner notes of his album Unchained. “The talk about sin and death and eternal hell without redemption, made a mark on me. At four, I’d peep out of the window of our farmhouse at night, and if, in the distance, I saw a grass fire or a forest fire, I knew hell was almost here.” That deep sense of everlasting accountability was etched deep into the soul of Cash.

The young Cash loved music, especially hearing his mother Carrie singing gospel songs in the cotton fields or hearing her strum her guitar and singing “What Would You Give In Exchange for Your Soul?” by the Monroe Brothers. “The music in the Pentecostal churches in the early years was wonderful. They were more liberal with the musical instruments used,” Cash recalled. “I learned to sit through the scary sermons, just to hear the music; mandolins, fiddles, bass, banjo, and flattop guitars. Hell might be on the horizon, but the wonderful gospel-spiritual songs carried me above it.”13

While Jewish boys reach their age of religious responsibility at thirteen for their bar mitzvah, Baptist boys in Cash’s family had to make the decision at twelve. Once the time had come, he already knew that he had reached “the age of moral and spiritual accountability.

So while the congregation sang the invitational hymn, ‘Just As I Am,’ I walked down the aisle of the church and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”14

Only a few months after that experience at the altar, he was confronted with the horrible death of his older brother Jack. While he was cutting fence posts, one got tangled up in the swinging saw and jerked him into it, cutting him severely. Jack was rushed to the hospital, but there wasn’t much that could be done. His mother and father were on their knees praying when Jack awoke and asked, “Why is everybody crying over me? Mama, don’t cry over me. Did you see the river?”

“No, I didn’t, son,” Carrie replied.

“Well, I thought I was going toward the fire, but I’m headed in the other direction now, mama. I was going down a river, and there was fire on one side and heaven on the other. I was crying, ‘God, I’m supposed to go to heaven. Don’t you remember? Don’t take me to the fire.’ All of a sudden I turned, and now, mama, can you hear the angels singing?”

“No, son, I can’t hear it.”

Jack began to squeeze her hand and said, “But mama, you’ve got to hear it.” The tears began to fall from his eyes as he said, “Mama, listen to the angels. I’m going there, mama.” The family at his bedside listened with stunned attention.

“What a beautiful city,” he said. “And the angels singing. Oh, mama, I wish you could hear the angels singing.” Those were Jack’s last words before he died.15

“It was like a burden had been lifted from all of us,” remembered Cash, “and it wasn’t just the eight-day burden of fighting for Jack’s life. Rather, we watched him die in such bliss and glory that it was like we were almost happy because of the way we saw him go. We saw in our mind’s eye what he was seeing—a vision of heaven.”16

That vision would be long lingering in his psyche and spirit. “The memory of Jack’s death, his vision of heaven, the effect his life had on the lives of others, and the image of Christ he projected have been more of an inspiration to me, I suppose, than anything else that has ever come to me through any man,” he would say.17


Cash’s launch into fame and notoriety began while he was still in his twenties. He began recording for the now legendary Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee—a creative convergence of pop, country, and rhythm and blues. Sun was a virtual Cape Canaveral of rockabilly stars, launching names such as Elvis Presley (“That’s All Right, Momma”), Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire”), Roy Orbison (“Ooby Dooby”), and Cash (“I Walk the Line”) into music history.

Cash describes the Sun years as “heady times.” He recalls one particular tour he took with Lewis, Perkins, and Presley (once dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet). The four of them were in a car when Lewis started preaching to them about how they were all going to hell (he was fresh out of Bible school).

Cash asked him, “Well, what about you?”

Lewis said, “Well I’m going to hell too. We’re all out here doing the devil’s work.”

“I’m not doing the devil’s work,” Cash said. “I’m doing it by the grace of God because it’s what I want to do.”18 As a matter of fact, one of the reasons Cash left Sun in 1958 was to have the freedom to record gospel songs.


Cash began popping pills as his success began to blossom in 1958.

At first, he looked upon them as a divine gift. “I honestly thought it was a blessing—a gift from God.”19 But it did not take him long to realize that he was deceiving himself and that the drugs were charms of the devil, luring him deeper into retreat mode from unresolved issues in his life. “Drugs were an escape for me, a crutch—a substitute for what I now feel. I was looking for a spiritual high to put myself above my problems,” he recalled, “and I guess I was running from a lot of things. I was running from family, I was running from God, and from everything I knew I should be doing but wasn’t.” The times were tough. “I wound up living from high to high, and the highs got higher—but the lows got lower. So low, sometimes, that I realized I was at the bottom, and that if I didn’t stop I would die.”20 He almost did—many times.

His first marriage crumbled under the weight of his manic touring schedule and an ever-increasing hunger for amphetamines. When he would come home, Cash argued with his wife, got stoned, and drove off—usually wrecking whatever he was driving. “I totaled a lot of vehicles, and I guess I must’ve broken twenty bones in my body—my toes, my jawbone, my nose, my fingers, my elbow, my foot, my kneecap,” Cash said. “I don’t know why I didn’t kill myself then. I think it was because God was really good to me, which is why I’m where I am now spiritually.”21

Cash was wrestling with his demons—quite literally. He can remember going to the desert and conversing with the voices in his head. “I’d talk to the demons and they’d talk back to me—and I could hear them. I mean, they’d say, ‘Go on, John, take twenty more milligrams of Dexedrine, you’ll be all right.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, but I’ve already had forty today.’ And they’d answer, ‘Take twenty more, it’ll be good for you, it’ll make you feel just fine.’ So I’d take ‘em and then continue talking back and forth to the demons inside me.”22

For good reason, Cash thought that he was going crazy. Hauntingly, he recollected the day he sat behind the wheel of his camper truck and looked at himself in the mirror. “I put my hand over my face and peeped through my fingers at myself and said, ‘Let’s kill us.’ And then I said, ‘I can’t be killed. I’m indestructible.’ Well, I looked myself right in the eye and said, ‘I dare you to try.’” He pressed the gas peddle and began to speed down the mountain until the truck flipped over twice. Remarkably he only broke his jawbone. “It was really a battle that raged within me for a long time—but somehow I survived.”23

Throughout this entire time, he never stopped singing gospel songs. He was stoned on amphetamines while he sang “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” one of his most beloved songs. “I used to sing all those gospel songs, but I really never felt them,” he said. “And maybe I was a little bit ashamed of myself at the time because of the hypocrisy of it all: There I was, singing the praises of the Lord and singing about the beauty and the peace you can find in Him—and I was stoned.” He was in a drug-addled hell, but these old gospel songs were etched in his DNA. “They were the first songs I ever heard—and I know this sounds corny, but they’re the songs my mother sang to me.”24

The legendary Carter Family, musical pioneers of folk, country, and bluegrass music, performed a number of those songs from his childhood. Some of their hits included “Keep on the Sunny Side,” and “Wabash Cannonball.” Cash became acquainted with members of the musical family, especially Maybelle and Ezra “Eck” Carter.

They cared deeply for the man that would eventually marry their daughter, June. Understanding his addiction, they did everything they could to help him beat it. They even invited Cash to stay in their home when he was in town.

Sometimes he would burst into the house drugged out of his mind. Eyes bulging and legs flailing, he would pace around the house. Maybelle would quietly and calmly try to talk him into going to bed. All the while, Eck would say, “The Lord’s got his hand on Johnny Cash and nothing’s going to happen to him. The Lord’s got greater things for him to do.”25

Eck Carter may have seen the hand of the Lord on Johnny Cash, but everyone else saw a legendary country outlaw. “I was backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville when I met him in 1965,” said Kris Kristofferson, whose career Cash helped to launch. “It was back in his dangerous days, and it was electric. He was skinny as a snake, and you just never knew what he was going to do. He looked like he might explode at any minute. He was a bad boy, he stood up for the underdog, he was exciting and unpredictable, and he had an energy onstage that was unlike anybody else.”26

Others weren’t so thrilled. Country singer Jimmy Dean once complained that Cash was undercutting Dean’s tours because he and his band kept getting turned down from hotels Johnny had trashed.

Legendary country guitarist and songwriter Merle Travis said, “I’m amused by him as a pet coon. I’m impressed with him like a snake behind glass. He’s that unique to me … Even though he’s a kaleidoscope of a thousand different ideas, he’s a straight line. There ain’t no twilight and there ain’t no dusk to Johnny Cash. He’s like a sunny day, or he’s completely dark.”27

Cash’s reputation as a rebel grew even more legendary when he was banned from the Grand Ole Opry after smashing all the footlights with his mike stand in 1965. He wrapped June Carter’s Cadillac around a utility pole—totaling the car, breaking his nose, and knocking out four of his teeth. Cash also accidentally burned down more than five hundred acres of national forest in California (he was fined $85,000). And then, there was the time when he got busted for smuggling 475 Equanil and 688 Dexedrine tablets across the Mexican border.

Amazingly, the Carters were there for him even in his most self-destructive state, opening their home and hearts to him like he was one of the family. “You know when he’d come to the house, he’d come starved,” Maybelle said. “I’d always see he got something to eat, and if his clothes needed washing, I’d see to that, because John did a lot for me. We had to stick by him. His people weren’t here. He was alone.”28

Eventually Cash bought a mansion in Hendersonville, Tennessee, just outside Nashville. He would get the pills by the hundreds and hide them around the house in socks, between boards in the floor, and in the ceiling tiles. The Carters would spend hours searching the house for his hidden stashes. A defining moment for Cash occurred in October 1967 when he had been arrested for the seventh time and woke up behind bars in Lafayette, Georgia. Apparently, he had been out pounding on someone’s front door after having wrecked his Jeep in the woods of north Georgia. The next day, Sheriff Ralph Jones released the singer and said, “Here’s your money—and here’s your dope … Now get out of here and go kill yourself.” Cash was startled. “What? What do you mean, ‘go kill myself?’”

The sheriff told him, “You got the power to do it and you’re trying to, so go ahead and finish the job. You don’t have far to go.” Cash responded, “I don’t want to kill myself.” Unrelenting, Jones said, “Of course you do. You almost did. When we brought you in here I called a doctor and he gave you a shot and put you to sleep. But he said you evidently want to kill yourself, so there’s your dope—go ahead and do it.” The sheriff’s disappointment and indignation stung even more when he said, “My wife and I have every record you have made, and it broke my heart when they brought you in here.”29

Cash returned home feeling depressed and defeated. “By early October 1967, I’d had enough,” he recalled. “I hadn’t slept or eaten in days and there was nothing left of me.”30 He tried to end his life by crawling into the Nickajack Cave on the Tennessee River in hopes of getting lost and dying. He crawled for several hours until his flashlight went out and he was trapped in the darkness, left to contemplate.

“I was as far from God as I have ever been. My separation from Him, the deepest and most ravaging of the various kinds of loneliness I’d felt over the years, seemed finally complete. It wasn’t. I thought I’d left Him, but He hadn’t left me. I felt something very powerful start to happen to me, a sensation of utter peace, clarity, and sobriety.”31

Although he didn’t hear an audible voice, he sensed the presence of God. “There in the Nickajack Cave I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea: I was not in charge of my destiny.” Cash began crawling in the deep darkness of the cave’s belly. “I started crawling in whatever direction suggested itself, feeling ahead with my hands to guard against plunging over some precipice … I began to see light, and finally I saw the opening of the cave.”32

Like the biblical character Jonah many thousands of years ago, Cash emerged from the belly of the beast after tumultuous soul-searching. He told June he wanted to kick the pills. Psychiatrist Nat Winston, then Tennessee’s commissioner of mental health, was summoned, and he began to meet with Cash. He told Johnny that he would help save his life if Cash really wanted to save it.

Winston showed up every day for a counseling session at 5:00 P.M. when he got off of work. “John,” he said, “I’m a doctor, I’m a psychiatrist, and I’ve seen a lot of people in the shape you’re in. And frankly, I don’t think there is much chance for you. I’ve never known of anyone as far gone as you are to really whip it. Only you can do it, and it would be a lot easier if you let God help you.”33

Despite his best intentions to get clean, Cash continued to stash pills around the house. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. Less than a week into detox, Winston came out to the house and asked him how he was doing. Cash said he was doing great.

The doctor knew better and said, “No, you’re not. You’re lying.” He asked Cash where the pills were. “You want to flush them,” Winston asked, “or do you want me to just leave and you keep taking them?” The pills were flushed.34

Maybelle, Eck, and June moved into the Hendersonville mansion. They circled around Cash’s bed and began to pray. He went through withdrawals for weeks, suffering nightmares and torturous stomach cramps. When he was not sleeping, he was tearing up the place looking for drugs. This episode of breaking the addiction took thirty-two days.

“My liberation from drug addiction wasn’t permanent,” he wrote in his 1997 autobiography Cash. “Though I never regressed to spending years at a time on amphetamines, I’ve used mood-altering drugs for periods of varying length at various times since 1967: amphetamines, sleeping pills, and prescription painkillers.”35

Looking back on those difficult years in the 1960s, Cash said that the drugs “devastated me physically and emotionally—and spiritually.

That last one hurt so much: to put myself in such a low state that I couldn’t communicate with God. There’s no lonelier place to be. I was separated from God, and I wasn’t even trying to call on him. I knew that there was no line of communication. But he came back. And I came back.”36

The degree of freedom that Johnny has enjoyed is attributed to God, June, Maybelle, and Eck Carter. Nevertheless, Cash admitted, at age 70, that the demons still lurk. “They don’t come knocking on a regular basis. They just kind of hold their distance. I could invite them in: the sex demon, the drug demon. But I don’t. They’re very sinister. You got to watch ’em. They’ll sneak up on you. All of a sudden there’ll be a beautiful little Percodan laying there, and you’ll want it.”37