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Sinner and Saint: The Redemption of Johnny Cash Focus of New Biography

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

When I was just a baby, my mama told me, ‘Son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns’.  But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

-- Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”

As the aforementioned song lyrics suggest, Johnny Cash was a man of great contrasts.  From his God-fearing, hardscrabble upbringing in rural Arkansas, this American icon was known as much for the emotional darkness that tormented him throughout his life as he was for his eternal journey of faith.

Pastor and bestselling author Greg Laurie believes it is Cash’s later years that the country music legend should be remembered for.  In his latest book, Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon (with Marshall Terrill), Laurie explores the Man in Black’s inner demons, triumphs, and what ultimately drove the 18-time Grammy Award winner into an “unshakeable faith” in Christ.

I recently spoke to Laurie about Cash’s seemingly larger than life presence across American culture and how his faith relates to the journey of everyday Christians.

First you published a book and subsequent documentary on Steve McQueen and now a book on Johnny Cash.  What is about you and America icons?

I never set out to write a series of books on American icons, but I was just curious about Steve McQueen. I'd always heard that he'd become a Christian but I never had any evidence to support that. So, it literally started with a Google search: Steve McQueen, Christian. And as I began to read a lot of articles, old articles I might add, there wasn't a lot of information out there. A couple of names sort of kept bubbling up, notably the name of his pastor. I started by interviewing him and then the story kind of broke open for me. That was book number one. A lot of people were saying to me after that, are you going to write any more of these books?

I said if I were to write another, it would probably be on Johnny Cash for this reason. Cash like McQueen is an icon. Johnny Cash has been called the Voice of America. Of course we know him as the Man in Black. He's also been described as the Godfather of Cool.

Johnny Cash had a lot of up and downs, a lot of struggle and ultimately a very deep commitment to Christ. In some ways, his musical career mirrored his spiritual life. It started strong musically and ended strong musically. The same is true spiritually. He started with great faith. In fact, originally he wanted to record a Gospel record. He wanted to be a Gospel artist, but ultimately became the king of country music. But in the very end, the last 10 years of his life, I think he recorded the best music of his entire career.

There was something about Johnny Cash that you couldn’t quite put your finger on.  He seemed to be larger than life.  Can you comment on that a bit?

I think the thing with Johnny is he was not slick. Johnny was authentic. He was real. And that's why I don't think we want to limit him to country music. He transcended country music. In fact when he started out, you can almost describe his music as somewhat rockabilly. But then as you get later into his career, he became very associated with country music. He was very popular with the folk and rock artists of the day. When he had a TV show, he not only had country artists on, he also had Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, and all kinds of really interesting artists that you would not normally think you would have.

Johnny was very open musically. And I think that authenticity in his voice and the messiness of his life only made him more real. We would think, ‘Oh my, that's a person just like me. This is a person who struggles.’ I think sometimes people think he was worse than he was because of the songs he sang. Johnny sang about trains, murder and betrayal as well as faith, heaven and hope. 

He was just a very interesting person. Sinners thought he was a saint. When he sang many people thought the guy's a real sinner. Is he even a Christian? Well he was. He was a sinner and a saint. He was Johnny Cash. That's why we love him.

Johnny Cash’s story is quite well known as multiple books, movies, and documentaries have been made about his life.  What sets The Redemption of an American Icon apart from all the other projects?

That's a great question. Let me read a quote from Johnny’s sister, Joanne Cash:

A lot of books have been written about my brother Johnny since his 2003 death, but I think he might have liked this one the best. Greg Laurie and Marshall Terrill have done a marvelous job capturing Johnny’s spiritual walk, which was not always easy or done in a straight line. But he reached the finish line and he finished well.

I think that she understood that we had a different reason for writing this book. It is a biography of Johnny Cash. I think people will be shocked by some of the things that happened in Cash’s life. He did get himself into a lot of trouble.

By his own estimation, he wrecked virtually every car he ever owned. He totaled two jeeps and a camper. He overturned two tractors and a bulldozer. He sank two boats in separate incidents and one leap from a truck just before he went over a 600-foot cliff after one of his drug binges. Just before he finally crashed, just before he drifted into unconsciousness, he heard sort of a quiet voice say to him, “I am your God. I am still here and I'm still waiting. I still love you.” Johnny knew what was right but he struggled with it. He ran from it, but he always returned to it. I think the real mark of a Christian is not that they're perfect, but even if they go straight, they'll always come home again.

Johnny always returned to his roots. He always returned to Christ. And then, toward the end of his life, his faith grew really strong. Even after the death of his beloved wife, June, he was asked by an interviewer, "Do you ever have lapses in your faith?" And his response was quick when he said, “I have an unshakable faith.” I think that came through in his life. We tried to bring that out in the book.

You mentioned earlier that Johnny Cash was equal parts sinner and saint.  How does his conflicting lifestyle relate to the journey of everyday Christians?

I think it relates to a lot of Christians because first of all, all of us struggle, and if we say we don't struggle, we're not being truthful. We all sin. The Bible even says, ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’ Perhaps Johnny's foibles and flaws were more public than ours because whatever he did would get into the newspapers. He was a public figure and a very well known one. (His exploits were) something that was reported widely. To me, it gives hope because I think there's someone that's going to read this book that thinks, well, I've failed and I've fallen and I can't get up again.

Well, Johnny shows that’s not true. You can get up again. And he shows that no matter what you've done God gives second, third, and fourth chances. In the end he finished his race. His music touched a huge audience and he always used his platform for the Gospel. One of the things you can say for Johnny, even when he was struggling with sin, he never was ashamed of his faith. When he was at the peak of his popularity early in his career, he had his television show and he had recorded this song called, “The Preacher Said.” In this song, he sings a little bit and then the preacher is none other than his close friend Billy Graham. Billy gives a little bit of a sermon.

That to me is one of the amazing things about Johnny Cash. The producers of his TV show did not want him to do this, but Johnny demanded it. And he was stubborn in his commitment. I loved that about him. And then of course, even when he was struggling, he appeared on many Billy Graham Crusades. Some people did not like that. Some Christians were critical of Johnny being up there because they'd just read an article in the paper about him getting in trouble again. But Billy kept giving Johnny second and third chances. One thing a lot of people don't know is that Billy and Johnny were very close friends. Another thing people don't know was that Johnny Cash was an ordained minister. In fact, at one point in his career, when he was very popular, Johnny considered walking away from his country music career and becoming a Gospel artist and preacher. You could see his faith was serious all through his life, but he did struggle.

After people have read Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon what would you like readers to take away from the experience?

I would like people to see that there's hope for anybody because we all knows someone like Johnny Cash. We all know somebody that struggles and falls down and once they've fallen down, they feel as though they can't get up again. I think reading this book shows that there's always hope. God certainly extended that to Johnny and He will extend it to anyone.

Watch Johnny Cash and Billy Graham Perform "The Preacher Said" on the Grand Ol' Opry:

Guest Name / Person Interviewed or Featured in Article or Video: 
Greg Laurie
Show Guest Bio: 
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