I remember when I was a lad, I was in the basement with my dad cleaning up some stuff and I came across a crate of old vinyl records with a lot of names I had never heard of; names like Elvis Presley, Simon and Garfunkel, the Statler Brothers, Marty Robbins. Some other records in there was of a singer named Johnny Cash. I remember because it was his record my dad pulled out and played on the old phonograph.
I really don’t have the words to describe that first song; it was called “Daddy Sang Bass”. The lyrics imagined a family who, though struggling, persisted and pushed on together with faith and singing daily in an unbroken circle; the voice was deep, raw, and echoed with a spirit that seemed familiar with every kind of emotion. The moment became more special when my mom came downstairs and my parents sang through the rest of the songs together.
Many, many years later in college, I was doing an all-night study session. My roommate had gone to bed and I was up working and needed some music to break up the quiet. I pulled out a Johnny Cash CD I had nostalgically purchased a ways back but never really listened to. Listening to those same old songs my parents sang was the moment that razor-edged voice came slicing its way out of my subconscious. Johnny had recently died around that time and getting to listen to his voice and his music, it hit me in that 3am moment that this wasn’t just good music, but journal entries of a life lived, sometimes up, sometimes down, but always forward in faith that knew hope and love would help the troubled soul.
Soon after listening to that CD of Johnny’s early hits, I started listening to his later recordings with producer Rick Rubin, also good stuff. Though I grew up in a preacher’s house, grew up in Church, loved learning the Bible, went to college to become a pastor, it was the Man in Black and his music that really helped put a human face on the faith that pushes back against the darkness.
Faith is only faith if it’s going forward and pushing through in character, hope, love, decisions, and perseverance. Rather than telling the mountains to move, it climbs and crosses them, sweating out the haze, panting for air and gritting its teeth, repeating over and over “keep going”. Faith has to be willing to take a beating if it wants to be genuine; its blood has to be drawn, its hopes tested and tempered in fire. Intimacy with God is not without scars to show for it; it’s okay to be black and blue.
Sin and redemption, hope and love—these themes consistently found in Johnny’s music and lyrics have made their way into the hearts of millions for generations because the truths they represent are themes longed for in the human heart. Today on his 81st birthday, as I listen to his music on my iPod while writing this, I’m thankful he got to exist, was willing to share his gifts, which blessed my dad, that my dad shared it with me, and that I’ve been blessed by it and get to play his songs on my guitar. Happy Birthday, Johnny, and thank you.