John R. Cash went to his reward on September 12.  His beloved wife, June, preceded the “Man in Black” in death on May 15.  His friends report that Johnny Cash was at peace and ready to meet his Maker.  Cash himself had calmly stated, “I don’t have long to live, now,” during his last TV interview, taped shortly before his death.  John’s long-dormant Christian faith was reignited in the 1960’s, partly by his love for June.  Their marriage was, as one observer put it, “A miracle of their faith . . . an absolute religious experience for both of them.”  That faith became the guiding light of Johnny Cash’s life.

Nevertheless, few media commentators made much of Johnny Cash’s religion or the role his Christian faith played in shaping his life and music.  On the basis of most of the comments made on his “spirituality” and his “faith,” one could have easily thought Johnny Cash was a Unitarian.  The man himself was not shy about speaking of his salvation in Christ, but media reviews of Johnny Cash’s career tended to focus on his hell-raising, boozing, and drug addiction.  Cash was cool because he had been a drug addict before it was fashionable, a drunken iconoclast who smashed the footlights at the Grand Ole Opry, sang rebellious songs about murderers (“I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die”) that foreshadowed the depravity of rap, and had admirers among punk rockers and heavy-metal enthusiasts.

Many of us saw Johnny Cash’s life and work differently, however.  Cash was a towering, craggy-faced figure with a soulful baritone voice, a man who fought spiritual battles on a biblical scale, an Arkansas Job, a redneck troubadour who wrestled with God, a prophet, a sinner turned disciple.  His faith, along with his physical suffering (Cash was in constant pain for years before his passing, as he refused to risk taking addictive painkillers for his numerous ailments) and the mental anguish he struggled with, were the real-life raw materials Cash used to make his music.  Only Johnny Cash could have cut a trio of concept albums entitled Love, God, and Murder.  Cash the rebel’s hard-edged songs always carried a message that the wages of sin is death, while Cash the believer sang about redemption being possible for all, even the worst of us, who are really not all that different from the best.  His whole life was a struggle, a battle that inspired both his melancholy, dark songs and his gospel music.  There was nothing fake about Johnny Cash.

Pop-music critics were just missing the point when they compared Cash’s hard-edged lyrics to those of rap or heavy metal, which generally celebrate deviance or wallow in despair, leaving nothing to point the way out.  Cash’s body of work does the opposite.  Even hard-rock songs were remade by the power of Cash’s talent.  In his brilliant rendition of “Hurt” on his last CD, The Man Comes Around, Cash was able to transform a heavy-metal number about drug addiction into a brooding but hopeful ballad, a stark look at self-destruction and a reflection on mortality and the fleeting quality of worldly achievements.  It is not a celebration of living hard and dying young.

Johnny Cash felt compelled to pass along that transforming message.  It was one reason he could never walk away from young people, not the hippies of the 1960’s or tattooed hip-hop fans of today.  Cash tried to listen to them because he was trying to speak to them.  If he had not lacked physical vigor in his last years, Johnny Cash might well have done more good for the body-pierced, baggy-pants crowd than an army of “Christian rockers” and purveyors of “contemporary worship.”

Critics and commentators have also repeatedly claimed that Cash “transcended” categories of music.  While Cash himself ignored commercial genres and sang what he liked, refusing to be pigeonholed, the critics again missed the point.  Cash’s music did not have universal appeal because he transcended his origins or his religion.  As with all cultural achievements of any value, it was Johnny Cash’s very specific identity and background that made his wider appeal possible.  Saying that he “transcended” it all is simply the postmodern critic’s way of saying Johnny Cash wasn’t what he really was, an old-stock American and a Bible-thumping Christian of a distinctive American type.  His music, whether rockabilly, country, gospel, or a cover of a heavy-metal song, was distinctly American.  If it wasn’t one of his songs, he made it his.  Cash was one of us.

Time’s Richard Corliss, who called Cash’s music “contemporary folk,” was one of the few critics who got the man and his music right.  Cash, wrote Corliss, was the “poet of the cotton fields, truck stops, and prisons.  He was a balladeer . . . a spellbinding storyteller—a witness in the Christian sense of the word.”  As one of his admirers, a member of the Irish band U2 known as “the Edge,” said of Cash, “[His] voice was all waiting freight trains and thundering prairies, like the landscape of his beloved America . . . there will never be another like him, and he could have come from nowhere else.”