My father, raised as one of 17 kids on a Canadian farm — a true country boy — was a big fan of America’s country music and one of its brightest stars, Johnny Cash. I thought of my childhood days growing up in Detroit but also immersed in country culture, as I watched the movie “Walk the Line” again recently, which is based in part on the legendary singer’s two autobiographies.* The film details how Cash first forged a bold path in country music in the mid-1950s by focusing on train and prison song folk styles, only to descend into drug addiction, climaxed by a miraculous recovery with the help of June Carter.
The film impressed me because of its honesty about the personal struggles of both Cash and his future wife as they built their careers. June was divorced shortly after she met Cash and a strong attraction developed between them that she resisted, although they continued to tour together. Cash was trapped in an unhappy marriage, which contributed to his addictive behavior.
The film was most remarkable for its honesty in probing the family scars that led to disastrous marriages for both country stars – scars they had to heal before they could eventually marry and become a force for recovery for others through their music. Cash had idolized his older brother Jack, whose tragic death was blamed on him by an alcoholic father – there had to be a confrontation before Cash could forgive himself. In addition, while the father eventually was a recovered alcoholic, he continued his dismissal of the importance of a musical career until Cash stood up to him.
June, on the other hand, had felt overshadowed by the talent of an older sister and then caught in the shame of being a single mom in an unforgiving southern culture. Once they overcame their own challenges and were happily married, the Cashes embraced the idea of redemption for everyone through their music by reaching out to the convicts in Folsom Prison, who were among Cash’s biggest fans. A live version of Cash’s early hit “Folsom Prison Blues” was recorded among inmates at Folsom State Prison in 1968 and instantly became a #1 hit on the country music charts. As I can affirm, this redemptive music reached far beyond the South.
*Man in Black (1975) and Cash: The Autobiography (1997)