When country music icon Johnny Cash made his singing debut at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 1957, he strode on stage wearing nothing but black, a sharp contrast to the colorful costumes that both the audience and his fellow performers were wearing. Thus did he both earn the nickname, “The Man in Black,” and earn the image of an outlaw.
Which he was and wasn’t. Certainly Cash had his demons. He spent years of his life abusing both alcohol and drugs, which contributed to the breakup of his first marriage and nearly derailed his career. But he was also a devout Christian — he described those years of drug and alcohol abuse as him “straying from God” — and he was a committed penitent who studied the Bible and even made a movie about the life of Jesus.
And he was humbled by his loss of grace, and empathized with all who were downtrodden or struggling with their own demons — he wore black on behalf of the poor and hungry, he once said, “and the prisoner who has long paid for his crime.”
Speaking of which, having written and recorded “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955 — a song that looks at life through the eyes of a condemned man — Cash received hundreds of letters from inmates at Folsom Prison, and other prisons, asking that he perform for them, which he did many times, and his live album “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison,” is a classic that reached Billboard magazine’s “Top 100” at a time — the late 1960s — when the music industry was mostly ignoring country music to promote Rock ‘n Roll. As one admiring Rock musician, U2’s lead singer, Bono, later put it, “Johnny doesn’t sing for the damned. He sings with the damned.”
Cash’s overt religious faith was, in many cases, detrimental to his career and estranged him from many of his fellow country artists, who thought he had sold out to religion. “They’d rather I be in prison than church,” Cash said, but his answer to his critics was simple. “I am not a Christian artist. I am an artist who is Christian.”
Cash’s faith, if one looks for it, can be heard in many of his songs, including “I Walk the Line,” arguably his most famous song. “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine,” he sang, because he was always walking the line between Christian faith and temptation, but in the end he chose his faith, and his millions of fans loved him for it. In an industry replete with shallow and phony people he was the real deal.
Cash died this week (Sept. 12) in 2003, a sinner redeemed. “The Man in Black” had seen the light.