John Carter Cash reflects on the lessons he’s learned from his father as Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon hits theaters this week. The film, which is available in select cinemas through Wednesday (Dec. 7), details the country icon’s rise to stardom, tumultuous life on the road, and return to faith.
Carter Cash, the only son of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, serves as an executive producer on the film. He says there was a vision to have a documentary that focused on his father’s spirituality for a while, and he believed the Kingdom Story Company production crew could bring that idea to life.
“They could make it happen in a way that offered a diverse palette of interviewees and gave a lot of insight into that life that was unique,” Carter Cash tells American Songwriter.
Carter Cash had previously unheard recordings of his father from when the Country Music Hall of Famer was writing his second autobiography, Cash: The Autobiography. Carter Cash went through each recording and selected the clips that made the most sense to share with the film’s storyline.
“I had a chance to work with those folks and put together a movie that I believe he would have stood behind,” he says, adding that the film showcases what his father stood for and who The Man in Black really was behind his image.
Throughout the production, Carter Cash found himself more connected to his father. At the end of Cash’s life, the singer continued to record new music despite not feeling well and suffering from chronic pain issues. It was revisiting these moments where Carter Cash was reminded how his father persevered.
“It helped me recall the strength that he had through that struggle,” Carter Cash says. “It wasn’t only that he just endured, but he flourished and [the documentary] helped me remember who he is as a person, as a father, as a good man.”
One of the film’s most poignant moments comes when Cash retells his experience in Nickajack Cave in Tennessee. Battling depression and addiction, Cash crawled into the cave with just a flashlight and planned to go as far as he could until his flashlight died. “Every fiber of my being totally exhausted, and I laid there in the darkness, at the end of the line, I laid there to die,” Cash says in the film.
“He woke up in the darkness of the cave,” Carter Cash says in the film. “He felt the loneliness and emptiness and realized where he put himself.”
For hours, Cash crawled in the dark until he reached the cave’s entrance. Carter Cash says he had a true connection with the strength that his father found amid his despair when he reached out and said, “Be my strength, God because I have no strength. Be my light so I can find my way out of this.”
“I think there’s a lot of symbolism there … he physically was in grave danger and when it was most needed, he did see the light and he found his way,” Carter Cash says. “A lot of people seem to believe that my father got to a point where it was happily ever after after that, but it wasn’t so. My father continued to go through struggles. He continued to fall short and to get back up again and he found grace and it was all based on the strength of faith that he found.”
Carter Cash says the same goes for his parents’ love story – it wasn’t all happily ever after once his father crawled out of the cave either.
“They continued to go through ups and downs, but by the end of their lives they were closer than they ever had been,” he adds, “and their relationship was stronger than it had ever been before.”
It’s this story and much more that Carter Cash hopes viewers of Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon learn about his father. The documentary also features Marty Stuart, Wynonna Judd, Tim McGraw, and Sheryl Crow offering insight into the late country icon.
“When I think about all that he went through towards the end of his life, I’m reminded of the strength that he found to continue on through the joy of creativity and through music,” Carter Cash says. “That continues to give me hope every day and seeing this film only helped me recall that even more.”
Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon is in theaters through December 7. Watch a trailer of the film above, and learn Carter Cash’s Top 5 Johnny Cash songs below.
1. “The Man Comes Around”
“‘The Man Comes Around’ I really love from American IV,” Carter Cash says. “I was there for the writing of it. Just watching that process was amazing.”
2. “Big River”
“I love ‘Big River,'” he says. “I think it’s an iconic piece of American poetry of the very American soil. Beautiful symbolism. Just amazing and beautiful.”
3. “I Walk the Line”
“‘I Walk the Line’ I truly love,” Carter Cash says. “There’s no other song out there like ‘I Walk the Line.’ The way it’s written, the chord structure, the modulation.”
4. “Tiger Whitehead”
“There’s another song called ‘Tiger Whitehead,’ one of the story songs that my dad wrote in the 1970s that’s relatively obscure,” he says.
5. “Luther Played the Boogie”
“Things that hearken to another age like ‘Luther [Played] the Boogie’ – I love that song,” he says. “That’s a lot of fun.”
Photo by David Redfern/Redferns