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Saint & Sinner Reconciled

Johnny Cash's maverick career contained disparate strains of America

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Twenty-five years ago, Charlotte author Frye Gaillard wrote about Johnny Cash for the award-winning book Watermelon Wine: The Spirit of Country Music. This profile of Cash is excerpted from a 25th anniversary edition of the book tobe published this fall by NewSouth Books. It is a portrait of a singer at the peak of his career at a time of deep division in the country -- and a reflection on a legacy that has grown larger with the years.

It stands there on the left, a mile or two beyond the tacky frontiers of runaway suburbia, looking like an antebellum prop on a movie set. Unlike most recording studios in Nashville, which are jammed together in a spruced-up swatch of urban renewal turf, the House of Cash rises stately and alone against a backdrop of rolling Tennessee pastureland.The grass is still bent from the dew, and the sound of a mockingbird echoes faintly across the hillsides as Johnny Cash's Cadillac glides into the parking lot. It is eight-thirty in the morning, a time of day that he would have dreaded a few years back -- during the seven or eight years when he would begin each day by gulping a handful of amphetamines. He wasn't too particular about the dosage, two or three at a time, ten or fifteen milligrams a pop, dexedrine, benzedrine, dexamyl. It didn't much matter as long as they did their thing -- as long as they helped him get from one concert to the next on the long road trips, and then, finally, as long as they helped him exist from one miserable morning until the one that followed.

The side effects were predictably squalid. He would pace the floor until the desolate hours of semidawn, until finally barbiturates would bring him down and lull him into a nightmarish sleep. He developed a nervous twitch in his neck, and apparently in his brain as well, judging from some of the things he did as his metabolism ran its tortured course from uppers to downers and back again.

He was arrested and jailed seven times, on charges ranging from public drunkenness to buying drugs from illegal sources. On one of his stops in jail -- in Carson City, Nevada -- only an impromptu version of "Folsom Prison Blues" managed to pacify an unglued lumberjack whose avowed intention was to strangle his more famous cellmate.

He once crashed through a warning gate at a US Navy bombing range and drove four miles across a live mine field in the Mojave Desert. He drove tractors over cliffs, wrecked half a dozen expensive cars, and tore up his marriage. Yet somehow he managed to survive until 1968, when, as Kris Kristofferson puts it, "he got him a good woman" and found himself reintroduced to Jesus.

That reintroduction became a bedrock for him, and in the process it gave his music a sense of mission that grows stronger and stronger as time goes by. Whether it's singing protest songs about the plight of American Indians, or doing free shows in racially tense prisons, or donating time and testimonials to Billy Graham's crusades, Cash is essentially giving expression to a brand of back-home Christianity that is far more subtle than most people might expect.

"Yeah, I guess that's true. That is what I'm trying to do," he agrees, as he munches on an apple in his wood-paneled office, his features ruddy and relaxed, and his trim, two-hundred-pound frame draped into an easy chair.

Cash does not give many interviews these days, but when he does, he participates fully and shows no traces of superstar pretensions. In the early stages, in fact, his voice will display just a hint of the butterfly tremors that are there around the edges when he walks on stage before five thousand people. But launching into an answer is like launching into a song, and his presence becomes certain and commanding as he begins to discuss, say, the relationship between his religion and his legendary concerts at several dozen prisons.

"The only prison concert I ever got paid for," he explains in a baritone voice that's as rich and ringing up close as it is on record, "was the one I did in Huntsville, Texas, in 1957. I took the show to the other ones free, I hope as my Christianity in action. I don't usually talk about that, and I wouldn't now if you hadn't asked me. I don't think a Christian oughta brag about his deeds, and anyway it's something that's meant a lot to me."

He peels off another chunk of apple with his black-handled pocketknife and then begins warming to the subject.

"There are a lot of people who don't understand what's happened to me," he says. "They say Cash used to be tough and now he's soft. The truth is I'm a lot tougher now. What those people don't understand is that the old Johnny Cash would have literally died in "66 or "67 if it hadn't been for faith.

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