Johnny Cash did not celebrate his birthday today. Because he’s dead. But if he were still alive, he would have turned 81 today, and probably still be in his famous all black attire.
As his career was taking off in the late 1950s, Cash started drinking heavily and became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates. For a brief time, he shared an apartment in Nashville with Waylon Jennings, who was heavily addicted to amphetamines. Cash used the uppers to stay awake during tours. Friends joked about his “nervousness” and erratic behavior, many ignoring the warning signs of his worsening drug addiction. In a behind-the-scenes look at The Johnny Cash Show, Cash claims to have “tried every drug there was to try.”
In many ways spiraling out of control, Cash’s frenetic creativity was still delivering hits. His 1963 rendition of “Ring of Fire” was a crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and entering the Top 20 on the pop charts, and it remains his top-selling hit of all time.
Although Cash carefully cultivated a romantic outlaw image, he never served a prison sentence. Despite landing in jail seven times for misdemeanors, each stay lasted only a single night. His most infamous run-in with the law occurred while on tour in 1965, when he was arrested October 4 by a narcotics squad in El Paso, TX. The officers suspected that he was smuggling heroin from Mexico, but it was 688 Dexedrine capsules and 475 Equanil tablets that the singer had hidden inside his guitar case. Because they were prescription drugs rather than illegal narcotics, he received a suspended sentence.
Johnny Cash’s final arrest was in Walker County, GA where he was taken in after being involved in a car accident while carrying a bag of prescription pills. Cash attempted to bribe a local deputy, who turned the money down, and then spent the night in a LaFayette, Georgia jail. The singer was released after a long talk with Sheriff Ralph Jones, who warned him of his dangerous behavior and wasted potential. Johnny credited that experience for saving his life, and he later came back to LaFayette to play a benefit concert that attracted 12,000 people (the city population was less than 9,000 at the time) and raised $75,000 for the high school.
Cash curtailed his use of drugs for several years in 1968, after a spiritual epiphany in the Nickajack Cave, where he attempted to commit suicide while under the heavy influence of drugs. He descended deeper into the cave, trying to lose himself and “just die”, when he passed out on the floor. He reported to be exhausted and feeling at the end of his rope when he felt God’s presence in his heart and managed to struggle out of the cave (despite the exhaustion) by following a faint light and slight breeze. To him, it was his own rebirth. June, Maybelle, and Ezra Carter moved into Cash’s mansion for a month to help him conquer his addiction. Cash proposed onstage to June at a concert at the London Gardens in London, ON, CA on February 22, 1968; the couple married a week later (on March 1) in Franklin, KY. June had agreed to marry Cash after he had “cleaned up”. He rediscovered his Christian faith, taking an “altar call” in Evangel Temple, a small church in the Nashville area, pastored by Rev. Jimmie Rodgers Snow, son of country music legend Hank Snow.
According to longtime friend Marshall Grant, Cash’s 1968 rebirth experience did not result in his completely stopping use of amphetamines. However, in 1970, Cash ended all drug use for a period of seven years. Grant claims that the birth of Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, inspired Cash to end his dependence. Cash began using amphetamines again in 1977. By 1983, he was once again addicted, and entered the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, CA for rehabilitation. Cash managed to stay off drugs for several years, but by 1989, he was dependent again and entered Nashville’s Cumberland Heights Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center. In 1992, he entered the Loma Linda Behavioural Medicine Centre in Loma Linda, California for his final rehabilitation (several months later, his son followed him into this facility for treatment).
Much of Cash’s music echoed themes of sorrow, moral tribulation and redemption, especially in the later stages of his career. His best-known songs included “I Walk the Line”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Ring of Fire”, “Get Rhythm” and “Man in Black”. He also recorded humorous numbers like “One Piece at a Time” and “A Boy Named Sue”; a duet with his future wife, June Carter, called “Jackson”; and railroad songs including “Hey, Porter” and “Rock Island Line”. During the last stage of his career, Cash covered songs by several late 20th-century rock artists, most notably “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails.