(Cover art courtesy of Salem Books)
Cash Rich and Spiritually Poor
Taken from Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon by Greg Laurie with Marshall Terrill. Copyright © 2019 by Greg Laurie. Used by permission of Salem Books, an imprint of Regnery Publishing. www.salembooks.com
A turning point, in more ways than one, came on August 5, 1955. Cash was one of twenty-two artists performing in Bob Neal’s “Country Music Jamboree” at Overton Park Shell, an outdoor amphitheater in Memphis. Elvis Presley was on the bill, too, along with Webb Pierce, Wanda Jackson, and Sonny James.
Cash and James had both performed earlier that year at the armory in Covington, Tennessee. After Cash and the Tennessee Two did “Cry! Cry! Cry!” and “Hey, Porter”—their entire repertoire at the time—the audience called them back out four times to repeat it.
James was known as “The Southern Gentleman” because he always conducted himself as one, and after the show, Cash sought him out for advice about something increasingly on his mind as his musical career took off: How to handle the demands of the entertainment industry, the bright lights, the fan adulation, and temptation—and still live a Christian life.
“John, the way I do it is by being the way I am,” James told him. “I am not just an entertainer who became a Christian. I am a Christian who chose to be an entertainer. I am first a Christian.
“Remember that what you are and the life you live sings louder than any song.
“And don’t forget to pray.”
At times, Johnny would follow that sage advice, and other times he wouldn’t. John R. Cash clearly knew right from wrong. He was a husband and now a father with responsibilities to put bread on the table. The career path that he chose—which in some ways chose him—was fraught with peril, and Johnny knew it. Though Elvis was already a huge star and Johnny Cash an emerging one, as time passed, it was Johnny, not Elvis, who would both start and finish well.
The Christian life is in many ways like a race. Some start well only to never finish.
Some start late in life and finish well. Johnny would stumble and fall many times as a Christian, but he would dust himself off and get up again . . . and again. In the end, Johnny’s faith would reach its zenith.
He would also produce the finest music of his career, including “The Man Comes Around” and his version of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” which ended up winning the Country Music Association award for Single of the Year in 2003. “Hurt” was also nominated for six other awards and the 2003 MTV Video Music Award, winning for Best Cinematography. Johnny Cash was the oldest artist ever nominated for an MTV music award.
Many (including John Lennon) would say that Elvis hit his musical peak right before he went into the Army. All his monster hits ranging from “Hound Dog” to “Jailhouse Rock” were a soundtrack to rebellious youth in the 1950s. But when Elvis emerged from the military with songs like “It’s Now or Never,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and, later, “Viva, Las Vegas,” it was clear the King was going in a new direction, and it wasn’t the groundbreaking rock and roll he was best known for.
The Overton Shell Park event drew more than four thousand people, and hundreds more were turned away. The next day’s Memphis Press-Scimitar ran photos of Cash and Presley superimposed over one of the big crowd with the headline, “Country Rhythm Fills a Country Park.”
Elvis himself had invited Cash to perform that night. For Presley, it was a triumphant homecoming. He had played his first public show there the year before as a supporting act for featured star Slim Whitman. Now the hip-swiveling upstart was the big noise at the event, literally. The screams for Elvis reverberated throughout Overton Park.
Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two had not performed in front of a live audience in Memphis other than a church till then. They played both sides of their first record and went over so big they were called back for an encore. They premiered their upcoming single, “Folsom Prison Blues,” and the reaction was loud and thrilling.
For Vivian, not so much. She was proud of and happy for her husband, of course,but the delirious reaction of the females in the crowd to Elvis gave her a sense of foreboding she couldn’t shake. Johnny was a good husband, but he had admitted to having a girlfriend when he was in Germany supposedly pining for her. He’d be going out on the road now for long stretches. How would he react to having hordes of pretty young girls scream his name and throw themselves at him? Maybe selling stuff door-to-door wasn’t such a bad thing after all. At least then he was home every night.
Bob Neal, impresario of the Country Music Jamboree, managed both Elvis and Cash at the time. But Colonel Tom Parker had already made himself Elvis’s “special adviser” and was in the process of luring him away from Sun Records. “Mystery Train” would be the last Presley single produced by Sam Phillips, and it shot to No. 1. It debuted around the same time “Folsom Prison Blues” and its flipside, “So Doggone Lonesome,” were recorded.
“Folsom” is a Cash classic, but it was far from that when he and the Tennessee Two introduced it to Phillips in the studio. Perkins couldn’t master the guitar parts, and Cash’s vocals were uneven. It took them months to get it right.
Cash himself predicted that “So Doggone Lonesome” wouldn’t sell more than “three or four copies, because I don’t have a steel guitar in the band.” He had a lot to learn. Released in December 1955, “Folsom Prison Blues” and “So Doggone Lonesome” became his first Top Ten hits, peaking at No. 4 on the country charts.
On December 9, 1955, a seventeen-year-old Joanne Cash went to see her brother in concert for the first time, at Swifton High School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, about thirty miles from Dyess. But she didn’t hear him sing a note that night because, just before he went out on stage, Johnny introduced her to the other star of the show.
“Elvis was the most handsome man I’d ever seen in my life—besides my husband,” Joanne laughed. “He was cordial, he was kind. He held and kissed my hand. We talked for almost an hour, and I missed my brother’s show. Johnny had some things to say to me on the way back home about that.”
Cash and Presley were always friendly with one another, but they were never close pals. They did, however, have interesting backstage patter, according to Cash.
“Oh, yeah, always talked about gospel music . . . well, not always gospel music but girls too,” Cash said. “Yeah, Elvis and I at a lot of the shows, we’d sing in the dressing room, and invariably, we’d go to black gospel. And we knew the same songs. We grew up on the same songs.”
Superstardom was clearly in the cards for Elvis, and the last thing Johnny wanted in those early days was to look like he was riding on Presley’s coattails. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, they swapped occasional notes. When Cash followed a Presley engagement at the Las Vegas Hilton, “The King” would call and wish him good luck. But they never hung out together.
In 1956, Cash, Elvis, and Carl Perkins joined the Louisiana Hayride, a popular radio show broadcast on Saturday nights from the Municipal Auditorium in Shreveport, Louisiana. Perkins also recorded for Sun, and he became one of Cash’s lifelong friends. It was Johnny who inspired and kept after him to write his signature hit “Blue Suede Shoes” during the Hayride tours that took them throughout the Mid-South and into Texas and New Mexico between Saturday night broadcasts in Shreveport.
On the Hayride tours, Cash got his first real taste of life on the road—and the snares and pitfalls he had fretted about to Sonny James. Backstage, there was beer and booze aplenty, plus women Cash heard the more experienced performers refer to as “snuff queens.” Later, they were called “groupies.” He didn’t partake, but the always-near occasion of sin at every venue greatly discomfited him.
The day after one Hayride broadcast, Cash, Grant, and Perkins headed out from Shreveport to a show in Gladewater, Texas. As they drove west, Johnny noted cars turning into the parking lots of churches along the highway and dolefully said, “That’s why I feel so low this morning. I ought to be in church.” But there wasn’t time. Later, Cash would look back on that as a pivotal event in his life—the day he put his career ahead of God.
When someone really has a relationship with God, they want to be with God’s people. That is, in fact, an indicator of true faith in Christ.
The closer we are to God, the closer we’ll want to be to His people. The further we are from God, the further we’ll want to distance ourselves from His people. If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable around Christians, maybe there’s something wrong with you spiritually.
1 John 3:14 says, “If we love our brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead” (NLT).
Johnny was a true believer, albeit a struggling one.
Back in Memphis, Vivian worried. She couldn’t get out of her head the memory of all those women clamoring for Elvis. One day when Johnny was home, she decided to voice her concern. “Baby, are you ever tempted by those women on the road?” she asked,
Cash was scanning the newspaper and didn’t look up. “What women?” he said idly.
“You know,” pressed Vivian, “the ones who scream . . . and proposition you?”
Now he looked up. “You mean those phony, plastic mannequins?” he snorted dismissively. “You don’t ever need to worry about me, baby. You’re on my mind every minute, day and night. I walk the line for you.”