Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

The Man Came Around: Johnny Cash’s search for Heaven
National Review ^ | September 15, 2003 | Steve Beard

Posted on 09/15/2003 8:44:42 AM PDT by presidio9

We walked trouble's brooding, windswept hills And we loved and we laughed the pain away At the end of the journey, when our last song is sung Will you meet me in Heaven someday?

Johnny Cash wrote those lyrics many years ago for his wife, June Carter. The song is entitled "Meet Me In Heaven" and it testifies to the irreplaceable bond of love, trust, and devotion that was shared by the couple throughout their 35-year marriage. "We've seen the secret things revealed by God/ And we heard what the angels had to say/ Should you go first, or if you follow me/ Will you meet me in Heaven someday?"

On Friday, September 12, Johnny Cash died at age 71 of complications from his longstanding bout with diabetes. Nearly four months after the passing of his beloved wife June Carter, the legendary Man In Black discovered the answer to his lyrical question.

It is strangely fitting that his last album, The Man Comes Around, will epitomize his legacy. It deftly embodied the gritty and brooding sound that marked his remarkable career.

Although Cash justifiably received numerous accolades for his rendition of Trent Reznor's song "Hurt" and its accompanying video, the title track of the album has been widely heralded as one of Cash's greatest songs. "The Man Comes Around" 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 is described by Cash collaborator Marty Stuart as "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.

"Everybody won't be treated the same," Cash wrote, "There'll be a golden ladder reaching down when the Man comes around." The swinging ladder from above never was an unfamiliar sight to Cash — dodging death numerous times from drug-related addictions earlier in his career to health-related maladies in his later years.

LOVE GOD MURDER If American music had a Mount Rushmore, Cash's distinctive profile would be prominently chiseled into the rock. He is most widely known for hits such as "Folsom Prison Blues," "Ring of Fire," and "I Walk the Line," selling more than 50 million records throughout his career. 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. His audiences have included presidents, prisoners, and everyone in between.

Throughout his illustrative life, Cash wrote books, hosted a popular television show, starred in and produced movies, and recorded 1,500 songs that can be found on 500 albums. His appeal is recognized by everyone from gangsta rappers to roughneck steel workers because of his charismatic magnetism that has spanned five decades of popular culture. "Locust and honey...not since John the Baptist has there been a voice like that crying in the wilderness," is how U2's Bono described him. "The most male voice in Christendom. Every man knows he is a sissy compared to Johnny Cash."

His songwriting orbited around the universal human condition of sin and redemption, murder and grace, darkness and light. His recent three-album collection is titled Love God Murder. What you see is what you get with Cash. There was never a manufactured feeling to his art. When he sang, you could almost taste the hillbilly moonshine, smell the gunpowder of a smoking revolver, and feel the drops of blood off the thorny crown of a crucified Christ.

In 1968, he recorded his now famous album Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison and produced Live At San Quentin the following year. The prison albums were some of his most expressive and impressive work. "I was in the prison band in San Quentin when I first saw Johnny Cash," remembered country singer Merle Haggard. "I was impressed with his ability to take five thousand convicts and steal the show away from a bunch of strippers. That's pretty hard to do."

"My biggest selling albums have always been the prison albums," Cash once told Rolling Stone. "I think there's a little bit of criminal in all of us. Everybody's done something they don't want anybody to know about. Maybe that's where it comes from." Cash had a special affinity for the outlaws and down-and-outers. He recalled the inspiring moment when an inmate at the Tennessee State Prison told him, "I believe I can make it another five years. I know somebody out there cares, cares enough to come in here and sing for us."

Of course, Cash spent his fair share of time behind bars for incidents surrounding his alcohol and drug use — mostly overnights in holding cells. He turned to drugs as his career began to take off in 1958. At first, he looked upon them as a divine favor from above. He once told Larry King, "I honestly thought it was a blessing — a gift from God." But it did not take him long to realize that he was deceiving himself and that the drugs were trinkets 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."

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 recalls. "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 deeply 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."

Cash's freedom from long-term drug addiction came through of the power of prayer and the stern hand of his wife who walked by his side through the dark night of the soul. Looking back on the difficult years, Cash says 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."

Back in the 1970s when he became more serious about his faith, Cash says it was Billy Graham who advised him to "keep singing 'Folsom Prison Blues' and 'A Boy Named Sue,' and all those other outlaw songs if that's what people wanted to hear-and then, when it came time to do a gospel song, give it everything I had. Put my heart and soul into all my music, in fact; never compromise; take no prisoners." Cash subsequently sang in the sold-out honky-tonks of the world and the jam-packed arenas of the Billy Graham crusades — never allowing himself to be too easily pigeonholed by the holy or the heathens.

Johnny Cash was an irreplaceable American original who will be remembered as a cross between Jesse James and Moses-an enigmatic man in black, with a heart of gold, and a voice that could raise the dead. Now that the Man has come around for him, one imagines he's met his June in Heaven.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial; Miscellaneous; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: faith; johnnycash; redemption; sin; spiritualjourney

1 posted on 09/15/2003 8:44:42 AM PDT by presidio9
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: presidio9
Good article. Better than I expected.
2 posted on 09/15/2003 8:59:29 AM PDT by Mind-numbed Robot (Not all things that need to be done need to be done by the government.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: presidio9
Nice sentiments, but this writer stinks. Here, just because it's a school day, are some of the worst phrases:
"longstanding bout"
"swinging ladder from above"
"drug-related addictions" and "health-related maladies"
"illustrative life"
"charismatic magnetism that has spanned five decades of popular culture"
"songwriting orbited around"
"gospel songs etched deeply in his DNA"

I could go on ... I'd give my 12-year-old a C+ if she produced this piece, and require a full rewrite eliminating every single adjective, just as a start.
3 posted on 09/15/2003 9:01:41 AM PDT by Tax-chick (RIP Johnny Cash ... "Take this weight from me, let my spirit be unchained.")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: presidio9
The best tribute I've read appears where else but in a conservative publication!
4 posted on 09/15/2003 9:04:14 AM PDT by Revolting cat! (Boss, I forgot to bring my tag line!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Tax-chick
Give the guy a break. He was on deadline. I've worked on a daily newspaper, and sometimes I cringe when I look back and see the cliches I typed in at 10 p.m. But I got the story to the readers the next day. Some writer once said, "No man should be judged by his newspaper work,"
5 posted on 09/15/2003 9:07:47 AM PDT by TedsGarage
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 3 | View Replies]

To: presidio9

6 posted on 09/15/2003 9:11:29 AM PDT by knarf (A place where anyone can learn anything ... especially that which promotes clear thinking.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Tax-chick
Yeah, the writer may not have been the best in his particular line of work, but his subject certainly was.
7 posted on 09/15/2003 9:14:05 AM PDT by oldfart (")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 3 | View Replies]

To: TedsGarage
Points for speed, I suppose, but National Review isn't a newspaper. Several FReepers' vanities the day of Johnny's death were much better than this.

I thought journalists were taught verbal economy. "Drug-related addictions" and "health-related maladies" in the same sentence? It reminds me of the obituary in the Shelby County Herald that said my grandfather died "from poor health."
8 posted on 09/15/2003 9:15:13 AM PDT by Tax-chick (RIP Johnny Cash ... "Take this weight from me, let my spirit be unchained.")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 5 | View Replies]

To: Tax-chick
Was this written for the magazine, or the Web edition? Web-based journalism makes the time crunch even worse. The deadline is no longer at 11 p.m., or on Tuesday morning, in the case of a magazine. It's as fast as you can get it out.
9 posted on 09/15/2003 9:23:33 AM PDT by TedsGarage
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 8 | View Replies]

To: presidio9
You should see the keening and wailing in the Nashville news media. Beginning Friday and continuing pretty much non-stop, the local TV's have made it almost impossible to get ANY news by their non-stop parading of just about anyone Cash ever knew or worked with thru the newscasts. They softened it up a bit Sunday, but it'll be good for about 15 minutes again tonight since today's the funeral. It's not that there's much real news in his passing - he's been dead-man-walking for the last 2 years - but the need to have pandered to that segment of the public for which Country Music is all they care about. They are afraid of losing the PR battle to their competitors, so they play Cash Chicken on their newscasts. The way this works is, they line up enough Cash fluff pieces to fill the whole newscast. And, monitoring the other stations, they run them until their rivals bail and move on to another topic. Only then do they move on to other news.

They also play Weather Chicken, too. When severe weather hits, they monitor each other while going wall-to-wall radar. The local NBC here will NOT go back to regular programming until the ABC and CBS already have. It doesn't matter how many times they have to repeat themselves, if ABC or CBS are still in radar, they'll stick it out until both of the others have left it.

Back to Cash - the newsies will cover the funeral today, then tomorrow they'll cover "yesterday's funeral." Then, there is going to be a Keening And Wailing Public Memorial, so they'll devote a big part of three or four days to cover that. If someone of note in music dies around Nashville, you can count on a good 8 or 9 days of solid Mourning News. It's obligatory in the South. They stop JUST SHORT of draping the TV studio sets in black.


10 posted on 09/15/2003 9:25:05 AM PDT by Wright is right! (Have a profitable day!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: presidio9
"Locust and honey...not since John the Baptist has there been a voice like that crying in the wilderness," is how U2's Bono described him. "The most male voice in Christendom. Every man knows he is a sissy compared to Johnny Cash."
11 posted on 09/15/2003 9:27:19 AM PDT by and the horse you rode in on (Real Texicans; we're grizzled, we're grumpy and we're armed)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Wright is right!
You're spot-on right. The same happened here in Chicago when (insert name of any local celeb) died. The real reason is less about any care for the dead person: it's easy, it's free and they can't get sued for it.

I like Cash's music, and I think "When The Man Comes Around" is positively haunting.

U2 is mentioned above, and Cash's "The Wanderer" that he did with them is excellent too.
12 posted on 09/15/2003 10:09:06 AM PDT by IncPen
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 10 | View Replies]

To: TedsGarage
I can understand sloppy writing for print more easily than for the Web. If the piece has to be to the printer by a certain time, or not make it into print, then that's a deadline. Items can be posted to the Web at any time, so why not take another 15 minutes to read it over and realize it's not well done? And don't they have editors?

Maybe the writer was just not at his best when writing this. Maybe he doesn't even like Johnny Cash's music, and his insincerity resulted in clumsy writing :-).
13 posted on 09/15/2003 10:29:17 AM PDT by Tax-chick (RIP Johnny Cash ... "Take this weight from me, let my spirit be unchained.")
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 9 | View Replies]

To: IncPen
U2 is mentioned above, and Cash's "The Wanderer" that he did with them is excellent too.

I love that song. It was the first time I had ever really heard anything by Johnny Cash. The best verse has this:

I walked outside the church house, Where the citizens like to sit, They say they want the kingdom, But they don't want God in it.

Sounds like America to me.

14 posted on 09/15/2003 11:41:38 AM PDT by Zack Nguyen
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 12 | View Replies]

To: TedsGarage
I don't think it was so bad. I work in a university. You should see how kids and professors write! Whew.
15 posted on 09/15/2003 12:05:43 PM PDT by Marysecretary (GOD is still in control!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 5 | View Replies]

To: Tax-chick
Well, yes, it was chock-a-block with cliches. But the essence of the article was still right on. This is more than you can say for many articles that are studded with cliches and destructive to the moral health of anybody who reads them.
16 posted on 09/15/2003 2:06:53 PM PDT by livius
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 3 | View Replies]

To: presidio9
Just saw this on NRO. Thanks for posting.

A similar article is Man in White from a recent issue of WORLD magazine.

17 posted on 10/26/2003 5:23:15 AM PST by rhema
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: presidio9; Tax-chick; Mind-numbed Robot; livius; oldfart
Dave Shiflett's "The Unlikely Superstar: Johnny Cash, up to Glory" may be a better-written tribute, I think. Unfortunately, it's inaccessible online; you'd have to get the October 13 print edition of National Review to read it.

And check out Gene Edward Veith's "Man in White," linked in post 17.

18 posted on 10/26/2003 5:41:32 AM PST by rhema
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: rhema
That was an excellent article.
19 posted on 10/26/2003 7:55:35 AM PST by Tax-chick (Celebrate my son's 7th birthday on October 31!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 17 | View Replies]

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794 is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson