One gets the feeling that when his time on earth is complete, Johnny Cash will be at the pearly gates with a guitar around his neck looking around for a microphone. There doesn’t appear to be any kind of retirement plans for the man in black – and we are all the beneficiaries of his work ethic.
Cash’s latest album, The Man Comes Around, embodies the jagged and prophetic sound that has marked his career – and testifies to the fact that, at age 70, he still has more grit and bang than all the newfangled pop stars combined.
The title track is about the Judgment Day and the notion that there will be an accounting for the way in which we live on earth. According to Cash, he spent more time writing this song than any other in his illustrious career.
“It’s a gospel song,” Cash collaborator Marty Stuart has said of the song. “It is the most strangely marvelous, wonderful, gothic, mysterious, Christian thing that only God and Johnny Cash could create together.”
“Everybody won’t be treated the same,” Cash sings, “There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down when the man comes around.” He has seen that golden ladder swinging down from heaven on several occasions in the last five years. Perhaps that is why death does not hang over him like a wet blanket. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think about death at all,” he says. “What is there to think about? I enjoy my life now.”
In 1997, Cash was in a coma for 12 days. Doctors told the family to expect the end. But June Carter Cash, his wife, had different plans. She got on the internet and asked fans around the world to pray for Cash on an upcoming Tuesday evening. “On that night—while fans prayed around the world—Cash’s family gathered around his bed in the intensive care unit, held hands, and joined in prayer,” reports Billboard magazine. “Within hours, he finally emerged from his coma.”
“It was incredible,” says Cash’s longtime manager, Lou Robbin. “He was in critical condition at that point, and the next morning he had turned the corner.”
Carter says she had no other choice but to pray: “They really thought they were gonna lose him—we all thought we were losing him. He was in this coma—just down so far that there seemed to be no way to reach him—and I couldn’t think of anything but to pray. So we prayed, and within a matter of hours, he just started squeezin’ my hand.”
Since that miraculous recovery, Cash has battled with several severe maladies. But Cash is a fighter – and a victorious one. Illness is not the only dragon he had to slay. Through his faith in God, and the iron-willed love of his wife, Cash also beat his addiction to drugs.
“I used drugs to escape and they worked pretty well when I was younger,” he has said. “But they 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.”
Cash remains a bit of a spiritual enigma, singing about murder and Judgment Day on the same album. One part outlaw, one part Old Testament prophet. “I believe what I say, but that don’t necessarily make me right,” he says. “There’s nothing hypocritical about it. There is a spiritual side to me that goes real deep, but I confess right up front that I’m the biggest sinner of them all.”
At age 70, Cash says that temptations are still alluring and the demons still lurk nearby. “They don’t come knocking on a regular basis. They just kind of hold their distance,” he told Rolling Stone. “I could invite them in: the sex demon, the drug demon. But I don’t. They’re very sinister. You got to watch ‘em. They’ll sneak up on you. All of a sudden there’ll be a beautiful little Percodan laying there, and you’ll want it.”
Mercifully, Cash’s time is spent listening to old gospel records, shopping at Wal-Mart with his wife, and recording more music instead of chasing the pills. He walks and talks with a new vulnerability and confidence. Cash seems to sum up his attitude on the linear notes of the new album: “I am persuaded that nothing can separate me from my love of my God, my wife, and my music.”
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.