How ‘the man in black’ reached redemption through religion

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

“Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon” is directed by Ben Smallbone. Credit: YouTube.

Superstar Johnny Cash was born into poverty and raised in the cotton fields of Arkansas. He cultivated an outlaw image and famously sang about life in California’s Folsom Prison.

Cash was addicted to drugs and alcohol. His first marriage ended, and he was estranged from his four daughters as he constantly toured. He sometimes had a turbulent relationship with his second wife, June Carter.

After attempting to take his own life in the late 1960s, he reconnected with the faith of his youth, which guided him until the day he died.

His spiritual journey is the subject of a new documentary called “Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon.” 

Director Ben Smallbone, who grew up in Australia and moved to the U.S. in 1991, says when he learned about Cash, it was remarkable that no storyteller wanted to focus on the last few decades of his life, which was dramatically different from his rebellious icon image.

Cash is known as “the man in black,” which is a religious reference. The film shows him singing, “I wear the black for those who've never read or listened to the words that Jesus said, about the road to happiness through love and charity, while you think he's talking straight to you and me. I'd love to wear a rainbow everyday and tell the world that everything’s okay. But I’ll try to carry on a little darkness on my back ‘till things are brighter. I'm the man in black.”

Smallbone explains that Cash’s spiritual foundation began in his youth, and his mom raised him in the church. As he found success in country music, he briefly swayed away from faith, then rediscovered it later in life and decided to sing gospel. 

Cash developed a long friendship with Christian leader Billy Graham — after his older brother Jack passed away in a sawmill accident.  

“Jack had committed his life to the lord and he wanted to be a pastor. And Johnny wanted to sing. And so when he was killed in that accident, I think that there was a hole left in Johnny's life that followed him until the end. But ultimately, I think Billy Graham helped fill a little bit of that hole,” Smallbone says. 

Johnny Cash had a long friendship with Christian leader Billy Graham. Courtesy of Kingdom Story Company.

From cotton-picking to celebrity status 

Cash was raised by cotton farmers, then joined the military, and when he was in Europe, he got a guitar and discovered more love for music, Smallbone explains. 

“When he came back, he was a man on a mission, he was focused on music and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, with his new wife. And every single day after work, he would go and sit on the doorstep of this new Sun Records in downtown Memphis, and eventually had a meeting with [Sun Records founder] Sam Phillips and said, ‘Hey, I want to sing gospel music.’ And he said, ‘Well, we have no place for gospel music, but come back in a few days with some original music.’ … And as they say, the rest is history.”

When Johnny Cash was in the military in Europe, he got a guitar and discovered more love for music. Courtesy of Kingdom Story Company.

Drugs and redemption

However, Cash got into drugs and alcohol, and was arrested for carrying hundreds of pills in his guitar across the Mexican border. 

He then walked into a cave on his property in Tennessee — with the intent to die. In the film, he says, “I kept walking and crawling and climbing until my life run out. Every fiber of my being totally exhausted. And I lay there in the darkness, the end of the line. I lay there to die.” 

However, Cash continued, “And it was like this feeling came over me that that [God] wanted to speak to my heart. ‘You do not control your destiny, it’s my will that you do not die now.’ … I came back from Nickajack Cave, and June [Carter] … said, ‘You'll die if you don't get off of the amphetamines and the sleeping pills.’ And I said, ‘I know it will.’ And she said, ‘I'll tell you what I'll do. I will save your life. And I'll be here at this house every afternoon. And that way, you can stay straight and look forward to seeing me.’”

Johnny Cash walked into Nickajack Cave in Tennessee — with the intent to die. But he came back thanks to his Christian faith. Courtesy of Kingdom Story Company.

Around the same time, Cash famously played his concert at Folsom Prison, which became a successful live album. He also performed at San Quentin. 

“He looked at it as an opportunity to reach out to broken men. … That was an incredible opportunity for him to impact these prisoners … for the rest of their lives. And hopefully, he would put them on a trajectory of redemption, just like he had been on.”



  • Ben Smallbone - director of the documentary “Johnny Cash: Redemption of an American Icon”