used to be a place near the Tennessee River just north
of Chattanooga known as Nickajack Cave. It took its
name from the tribe of Indians slaughtered there by Andrew
Jackson and his army. The opening of the cave was 150 feet
wide by 50 feet high, and because of its depth, it
presented a formidable place to hide. It was also used
as a refuge
during the Civil War. Confederate soldiers holed up there
during the battle of Lookout Mountain, and before the Army
Corps of Engineers dammed the cave opening, it was rumored
that the ghosts of both sets of the dead—Indians
and Confederates--haunted the cave.
One night, at the pinnacle of his career
and the height of his musical power, Johnny Cash, high
and full of despair, drove down to Nickajack
Cave to kill himself. He knew the cave from going there to search for Civil
War and Native American artifacts, and he was well acquainted with
the fact that many spelunkers had died deep inside Nickajack’s byzantine
architecture. He wanted death, and the cave was just the place for it. “If
I crawled in far enough,” he said, “I’d never be able to
find my way back out, and nobody would be able to locate me until after I was
dead. . .” So he crawled on his hands and knees for what seemed like
hours in the pitch black, doped out of his mind, until his flashlight ran out.
Completely disoriented and alone, Johnny Cash lay down in the belly of Nickajack
cave to die. That was the fall of 1967.
How he eventually arrived at that cave goes back to his childhood. The son
of a cotton farmer in Arkansas, young J.R. (as he was then called) lived with
his parents and brothers on a co-op farm, picking cotton as soon as he was
old enough to shoulder half a day-laborer’s sack.
Cash family was poor, but what they lacked financially
they made up for in familial bonds.
J.R. was particularly close to his oldest brother Jack. They would spend
long hours in the fields, getting into all sorts of mischief
and defending one another
from their obdurate father. According to J.R., Jack was the strong one; he
was full of promise and worthy of the entirety of a younger brother’s
admiration. J.R. idealized Jack. He saw in his older brother everything he
thought he wasn’t but wanted to be --someone who was strong, Christian
and doted upon by his Father.
one day, while at work on
a table saw, Jack was accidentally pulled onto the table and run across
He was torn open from the chest to the groin. The injuries were gruesome
and lethal, but miraculously, Jack managed to survive for a few days--
the doctors even thought he might make a recovery. But
eventually Jack died
in the family home, while young J.R. and the entire Cash family looked
on. Before the end, he announced that he could
see heaven and the angels, and that they were beautiful. Then
he quietly passed.
death of his brother (foretold to him in a dream
by an angel), lingered heavy in Cash’s
thoughts to his dying day, and fueled the two
that defined him: his toughness
and his deep,
abiding faith in God. His singing career was the child born of those
traits, and the bedrock of it all was his matchless voice.
When Cash hit puberty his voice dropped to the rich baritone that
would eventually make him famous. He always loved to sing, and when he
first emitted that deep growl for his mother, she declared it “a
gift from God.” His father was not so amused. He told John that
not waste time” on such frivolous things as singing. A struggling
cotton farmer already missing one able-bodied son had no need for a musician.
John knew his gift was something special and trusted his mother’s
instincts. Fueled by the gaping hole his brother’s absence left
and sure of God’s
blessing, he struck out for Nashville to record a gospel album.
Cash was discovered by (or rather, introduced himself
to) the legendary producer Sam Phillips at Sun
Studios in Memphis during the spring of 1955. Phillips,
however, wasn’t interested
in gospel. He said it wouldn’t sell, and asked Cash
if he had any other tunes. Disappointed but undaunted,
Cash proceeded to sing covers of a number of hit records
from the time, but none of them seemed to strike Phillips’ fancy.
Then Cash broke out a tune of his own about a passenger
on a train ("Hey Porter!"). Phillips loved the locomotive/rockabilly
rhythm of the song and Cash’s music career---and
signature sound--- was born.
enjoyed almost immediate success in those early years,
writing songs for the
Sun label and touring incessantly with luminaries
Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and other
greats. Their music
was a revolution, but the blessings
came hand in hand with the
curse of drugs. Long nights on the road, frenetic shows
money than they could spend meant that drugs were easy
to come by, if not necessary for survival. Even though
Cash was firmly grounded in his faith, he was no exception
to the burgeoning rock and roll rule: If you can’t
keep up with the pace, don’t slow down, take amphetamines.
Cash took his first amphetamine while on the road in
1957. It was a small Benzedrine pill ironically etched
marking of a cross. A doctor had given him
the pills when he complained about his inability to meet the grueling demands
of the road. Cash later recalled that the uppers turned him on “like
electricity flowing through a lightbulb.” He only had to take them one
time and he was hooked. It wasn’t too long before he was playing his
shows high all the time, even going so far as singing spirituals and recording
gospel albums while stoned. On his bad days, he was taking downers to quell
the spikes of the uppers and then more uppers to get the same high that the
downers had cut. Though his music career was wildly successful, his life began
to spin out of control. He would later recall in his autobiography, “The
person starts taking the drugs, but then the drugs start taking the person,
that’s what happened to me.”
Thankfully salvation (one of the many instances in John’s life) arrived
in the unlikely form of June Carter late in the winter of 1961. The Carter
Family---country music legends in their own right--- joined Cash’s tour
as an opening act that year, and though both John and June were married at
the time, there was an immediate attraction between them. As the years went
by, June looked out for John. She supported him when he was down and out. She
calmed him when he was in a rage; she stole his heart. Two years after that
fateful first tour, June co-authored the Cash hit “Ring of Fire.” The
song is an ode to her love for John, as well as a nod to the intractability
of that desire given the circumstances of their mutual marriages to other people.
The taste of love is sweet
when hearts like ours meet
I fell for you like a child
oh, but the fire went wild…. ("Ring of Fire")
they would get married and carry one another into old
age, but not before things became much worse.
June Carter’s love wasn’t enough to take Cash
off the destructive path that led him into the
of Nickajack cave.
Sitting in the dark soil and blackness of that cave, high
on drugs, his first marriage crumbling under the weight
of his infidelity with June, Johnny Cash lay down to die.
He later wrote in his autobiography that “the absolute
lack of light was appropriate, for at that moment I was
as far from God as I have ever been. My
separation from Him, the deepest and most ravaging of the
of loneliness I’d felt over the years, seemed finally
He lay in the darkness for hours feeling
sorry for himself--- for the lives he had ruined and the
body that he’d abused---but down in those unfathomable
depths everything changed. His mind became clear and he
started focusing on God. He realized he wasn’t in
charge of his own destiny, that he was going to die at
God’s time, not his. With no idea how to
get out of the cave, he decided to blindly crawl in
search of the light. He did this aimlessly for some time
until he felt a breeze on his back and followed it to the
cave opening. Miraculously he had made it out of the cave
that had claimed the lives of so many others. What’s
more, June Carter and his mother were there at the cave's
entrance. Apparently Cash’s mother “knew
something was wrong” and had flown all the way from
California to find her beloved J.R. and help him.
Cash left a tremendous musical legacy when he passed
away two years ago. His prison shows at Folsom and
San Quentin broke down barriers and exposed injustices
that were right in our backyards (not to mention the fact
that they are two of the finest live albums ever recorded).
He also championed Native American rights in his song “The
Ballad of Ira Hayes.” He did big tent revival work
with Billy Graham. And he reinvented himself in his later
years by working tirelessly with legendary rap producer
Rick Rubin, garnering a whole new generation of fans.
Cash was the godfather of rockabilly and arguably one of
the greatest crossover artists of our time.
More than anything, however, what happened
in Nickajack defines the man and his music. Something about
the ground in that cave and the utter hopelessness Cash experienced
best captures the apogee
of his darkness
and the meaning of the light. Cash knew how it felt to
be a miserable sinner, what it meant to build and destroy,
and he knew
how far grace would go
him back. That gave him a unique point of view. He sang
with the sinners. He considered himself chief among them
and knew that if he could be forgiven, they could too.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me..
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold… ("Man
The Bible says that the kingdom of heaven is like a tiny
mustard seed, barely noticeable to the eye, but planted
in the proper ground, it’s like a tree
that overtakes all the other trees in the garden. It becomes a place that
brings shade to the prisoner, the sick, the drugged-out,
the lost, the imprisoned
and the unloved of the world. It is a place of comfort, belonging and solidarity.
In the music, life and legacy of Johnny Cash, I hear and see the kingdom
of God sprouting up through the soil of one very broken
man, in black.