Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of the Nation
By Rodney Clapp
Westminster John Knox, February 2008
192 pp., $16.95
When Johnny Cash died at age 71 on September 12, 2003, he'd been everywhere, man. Everywhere, that is, in a geographic, moral, and spiritual sense. The son of a dead-end sharecropper who scratched out a meager living in Dyess, Arkansas, Cash turned to music for solace at a young age. His devout mother instilled a Southern Baptist sense of right and wrong, good and evil in the youngster. Cash spent some time worshiping in the Dyess Church of God (Cleveland) as well.
His later downward spiral into drugs and hard living gave an edge to songs about drunken veterans, murderers, prisoners, and boys named Sue. Much like Elvishis one-time fellow Sun Records label mateCash traded in his heavenly crown for an amphetamine crown. The story so resembles a Hallmark Hall of Fame biopic that the 2005 film Walk the Line hardly needed writers. The slapstick send-up Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), proved as much.
But Cash's complicated redemption, career, and later life defy simple categories. Unlike so many pop musicians, he brought an honest, unflinching artistry to a large public. Watching episodes of his 1969 ABC TV shows is mesmerizing. Cash straddled genres and sang duets with Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, the Statler Brothers, and Joni Mitchell. The Man in Black introduced Middle America to the counterculture with relative ease. He bridged divides. Upon his death, the president of his European fan club commented: "He sings about farmers and the working peopleand that's what we all do, so the songs are common to all the people in Europe ...1