Johnny Cash movie: His life, loves, challenges and successes

By Rusty Wright

International superstar; honored by presidents; a jailbird and addict.  Singer Johnny Cash knew great highs and great lows.  What was The Man in Black’s legacy?

1969 saw over six million Cash records sold… more than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin or any musical act.  Johnny packed arenas, had a weekly national television show. Over 70 of his TV guests made either the Rock and Roll or Country Music Hall of Fame.

Just two years before, depression had prompted him to attempt suicide.  Popping pills – nearly 100 daily at one point – made a mess of important relationships.  His first marriage crumbled; financial problems hounded him. June Carter, the woman he loved, refused to marry him until he kicked drugs.  He felt lonely, abandoned, worthless, hopeless.  Amphetamines, barbiturates, and alcohol medicated his pain.

What happened in those two years? A new movie explores his multiple journeys of overcoming.  Based on Greg Laurie’s book of the same name, Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon is a documentary featuring his life, loves, music and personal challenges.

One sad day in 1967, Johnny entered a deep cave near Chattanooga, crawled for hours and lay down, intending to die there.  Lying in that dark cave – his flashlight battery dead – he said he felt God prompting him to get up and exit.  So he crawled for hours in the darkness until he saw light leading to the way out.  Upon emerging, he promised June he would put his life in God’s hands.

Life’s roller coaster

Picking cotton in the fields daily as a boy with his family, Johnny Cash knew poverty.  After his older brother died from a gruesome woodcutting accident, Johnny overheard his father, Ray, say, “God took the wrong son.”  Ray was stern and emotionally distant, an alcohol abuser who never told Johnny he loved him.  

But his mother Carrie, was loving, caring, and devoted to Johnny, praying for him.  She loved his singing and encouraged him to pursue it as God’s gift.

In 1969, Johnny reconnected with Jimmie Snow, a country singer he’d known from the early music circuits with Elvis Presley.  Snow, once a drug and alcohol abuser, became a pastor.  Eventually, Johnny declared publicly his choice to follow Jesus as his Savior.  

Highs and lows

He married June Carter and they sang together.  His concerts included prisons like San Quentin and Folsom.  Johnny’s honesty about his struggles endeared him to the hardened convicts.  He sang about adversities and pointed his audiences to the God who remained his friend through it all.  Actor John Schneider (The Dukes of Hazzard) says, “It was Johnny who led me to Christ.”

Johnny became good friends with Billy Graham and spoke at many Graham events.  But a drug relapse put that opportunity on hold temporarily.  He sometimes used drugs during his TV show years.  He and June fought; she threatened divorce. 

He battled his addictions at the Betty Ford Center, becoming friends there with Elizabeth Taylor.  Six months later, he was back on pills.  Biographer Laurie says Johnny’s failings reminded him of Oscar Wilde’s famous counsel: “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

Finishing well

This inspiring film includes music and video of Johnny, plus insights from artists like Wynonna Judd, Sheryl Crow, Alice Cooper, Tim McGraw, Jimmie Allen, Marty Stuart, and Schneider.

Johnny did finish well.  June predeceased him.  Before he died, he and his first wife Vivian, to whom he’d been unfaithful, visited and made peace with each other. 

His tombstone expresses his ultimate goal in life: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, My strength, And my redeemer (Psalm 19:14).”

Johnny’s musical life message continues to inspire.    In theaters December 5, 6 & 7 (USA)  

Available on Digital and on Demand May 9, 2023.

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

Copyright © 2022 Rusty Wright

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Editors:  Note pictures below.  For access to these and more, check here, here, and here

Johnny Cash movie poster.
Crowds press to connect with Johnny.
Johnny Cash and June Carter on their wedding day.
Johnny had his run-ins with the law.
Johnny Cash and his friend, Billy Graham.
Johnny nearly lost his life in Nickajack Cave in Tennessee.