I had the privilege of meeting Johnny Cash many years ago.
My dad had always been a big fan of the Man in Black. So, when I heard he was in Chicago, signing copies of his book Man in White at the downtown Kroch’s and Brentano’s, I stood in a long line to get his autograph.
He seemed bigger and more weathered in person. Johnny was wearing his signature black and signing book after book. When my turn came, I mustered up my courage and asked if he could address it to my dad. “Could you write, ‘To Neil: Another great musician?’”
Johnny looked up at me, and he grinned.
The second time I saw Johnny was at a concert at Chicago’s Cubby Bear venue. The place was packed with an odd assortment of people: punks, little old ladies, hard-core motorcycle dudes, and assorted country people wearing cowboy hats. Standing room only.
My dad pushed to the front of the stage to see the man he so admired. I stood a bit back with my mom where it was less claustrophobic.
The crowd began to chant, “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny…” A few band members took the stage, and everyone went wild.
When Johnny finally walked on stage, the place exploded. He couldn’t even say his signature line: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” it was simply too loud. He started laughing.
Finally, he picked up a guitar and started singing. June was there as well. What a night it was . . . I’ll never forget it.
Johnny is in heaven now, and so is my dad. I hope they finally had a chance to shake hands and maybe make a little music together.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Johnny Cash Museum – just opened in Nashville, TN. The entrance fee is modest – about $14 a person – to see a collection of Johnny’s memorabilia.
They have his black suit and his guitar with a dollar bill folded in the strings to make that raspy percussion sound.
They have the original stone wall, transplanted from their home that burned to the ground. They have his high school photos – adorable. I loved the personal mementos, like this valentine heart from Johnny to June.
They have his manuscripts and his Bible.
What some might not know that while Johnny Cash was a great musician, he was also a man of great faith.
After I watched his biography, I realized how human he was. He was an addict and unfaithful in marriage. He had a temper. He crashed and burned. He hurt his children.
He was also redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. Johnny knew he couldn’t pick himself up. He needed God. To the end of his life, he declared himself (like the apostle Paul) a man completely transformed only by God’s power.
At the end of the museum, they are playing a video of his recording of the Nine Inch Nail's song “Hurt.” He talks about the fact that all of this – all the human evidence of fame and glory – will one day end.
Only who he was in God would endure.
The song says: “What have I become, My sweetest friend?
Everyone I know, Goes away in the end.
You could have it all, My empire of dirt,
I will let you down, I will make you hurt.”
Johnny realized that everything he had accomplished was only temporary. Both his triumph and his pain would ultimately fade in light of eternity.
Although the museum held a wonderful collection, I was a bit sad as I left. It made me miss the Man in Black. It made me miss my dad.
I know they are both in heaven. This is not the end of the story.
I am thankful that in this museum paying tribute to a great country star, it also pays tribute to our God who changes lives and promises us forever.