When my teenage friends were listening to the Beatles, we were playing Johnny Cash at my house. I can remember putting those huge records in the record player and listening to Johnny Cash sing the Folsom Prison Blues and Ring of Fire. Then, with technology, we finally advanced to 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, and at last, cd’s. But I didn’t know the man behind the music until recent years, except that I knew he wore black. I didn’t know the haunted man who would one day in 1967 crawl into Nickajack Cave to die.
Most people know the basic story behind Cash. He was raised in poverty in Dyess, Arkansas. He and his brother, Jack, helped their parents pick cotton as soon as they could hold the bags. His abusive father always favored Jack over J.R., as he was then called, and blamed him for Jack’s horrible death when he was pulled into a table saw. The pain and anguish of his childhood was never far from his thoughts, although he tried in many ways to bury it. He left Dyess to enlist in the Air Force, his ticket out of the pain and dismal poverty of his childhood. When he returned from the service, he moved to Memphis and the rest is history. Sam Phillips of Sun Records signed him and the Tennessee Two on his label.
A few years of the lifestyle of touring musicians took its toll on him. He turned to booze and amphetamines, which were easy to get at the time, and eventually to barbiturates to bring him down from the uppers. Johnny Cash was an addict waiting to happen and it didn’t take long for him to get hooked. He loved the energy of the amphetamines, but they impaired his already radical behavior. He began carrying guns and firing them for no reason. Once he and Sammy Davis Jr. got thrown out of a hotel in Australia when they staged a gun fight in the lobby in front of guests. They only fired blanks, but they scared everyone to death. He chopped through locked doors in hotels with a hatchet to wake up his band. He dropped a huge load of horse manure in one hotel lobby. He and his tour started carrying a chain saw in the car and when they would roll into a town in the early dawn hours, they would find the nicest, neatest yard in town and cut down one of the trees. There seemed to be no end to the mischief and destruction that he could do. He ruined his career and marriage due to his addiction. No one wanted to hear anything more about Johnny Cash. He was no longer welcome in most country music halls.
When his pain and misery overtook him, he decided to end it all. Drugged almost out of his mind, he went to Nickajack Cave in Marion County, Tennessee, to end his life. He crawled for what seemed like hours on his belly and knees in pitch-black darkness until his flashlight went out, and then he laid down to die. The man in black was as far away from God as he could get. He had turned away from the light and embraced the darkness, almost begging it to take him out of the world. To his surprise, he had a spiritual awakening there on his belly in Nickajack Cave. God told him He wasn’t through with him yet and that his days as a drug addict were numbered. Without a light, he crawled back out of the cave the same way he had crawled in and found his mother and June Carter waiting outside the cave for him. His mother, who lived in California at the time, had flown to Tennessee because she had a premonition that he needed her. In the next month he detoxed from pills and booze and recharged his career in music. He focused his music on those people, who like him, had been through the darkness and wanted to find the light. He sang at prisons and for presidents. He understood what lay in the darkness because he had crawled every inch of it on his belly to get to the light. He saw the souls of the prisoners and the down-and-out addicts, and he never forgot that kind of pain.
If you’re stuck in the mire of the darkness, listen to the man in black. Crawl to the light and He will be there waiting for you.
Have a happy journey!