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Johnny Cash - At San QuentinFebruary 26th marks the birthday of Johnny Cash. An American icon.

There has been much written of his life; even a very well made movie. I had the good fortune of growing up in a home listening to the music Johnny Cash.

His life captures so much of the essence of the American Experience. Born into poverty, but raised with strong christian values, he served in the Army like so many of his generation.

Then fame and fortune arrived, only to be lost to the torment of drugs and alcohol. But as was always the case with Johnny Cash he seemed to rise from the ashes a stronger and wiser person.

What more can any of us ask but to live and learn. To try once again to make life better, for not only ourselves, but for those around us.

Any of those themes contain the basis a great story, but what has always intrigued me about Johnny Cash was the internal struggle; the spiritual struggle. A struggle that he seemed to wear on his sleeve. No matter how far he climbed or fell, you were always aware of his humanness. There was never any of the Hollywood pretentiousness so rampant today. He didn’t run from his humble beginnings or show any embarrassment. In fact he embraced it.

I remember very little of what Johnny Cash wrote. I can’t recall any interviews. As a teen I even read his autobiography, released in 1975, “Man in Black.”

But his songs. Oh man his songs. They often took me away to a place and time of his choosing. Often it was like a movie playing in my head such was his ability to to convey a story-song with passion, feeling and emotion.

And his style was unique. So much so that as a young teen when he had the chance to take voice lessons his teacher told him after the second visit to never take another lesson. She went on to encourage him to never deviate from his natural voice.

Stick with me to the end because, you will find a great video that captures this in a very real way. Johnny Cash wore his life on his sleeve. The pride, the anger, the sadness, rebelliousness, fear, joy and love are laid bare in his voice and music.

But first a story.

While traveling to go on vacation I turned on my iPod. In general airplanes are among the most unproductive venues for me. I’ve never been able to do much but listen to music or look out the window. I even struggle to read a book while flying. I’ve never figured out why. At some point I decided to not fight it anymore.

So on this day the Johnny Cash albums that I had loaded, but never really listened to, caught my eye and I proceeded to listen to the Live at San Quentin album. The album was recorded in 1969 at the peak of his career, just before drugs and alcohol caused him to crash and burn. His life and relationships in tatters he eventually wound up in rehab. But this performance precedes that and you can sense the cockiness and rebelliousness, mixed with a tinge of anger, throughout the album.

As I looked out the window of the plane the next album on the iPod started. I was stunned at the difference. The voice was so much older, weaker, even frail.

The album playing, American IV – The Man Comes Home, was recorded in a cabin on his Nashville estate less than a year before his death. Diagnosed with a rare nervous system disorder called Shy-Drager Syndrome Johnny Cash realized that his time was limited.

One song struck me in particular,

I hurt myself today

To see if I still feel

I focus on the pain…

What have I become

My sweetest friend

Everyone I know goes away

In the end

This is the story of someone who understands both his mortality and his shortcomings. Someone who who goes on to explain the futility of material things.

And you could have it all

My empire of dirt

I will let you down

I will make you hurt

I wear this crown of thorns

Upon my liar’s chair

Full of broken thoughts

I cannot repair

Beneath the stains of time

The feelings disappear

You are someone else

I am still right here

And if he could live it all again?

If I could start again

A million miles away

I would keep myself

I would find a way

It speaks of an undying faith that he would find away to stay true to himself, while still acknowledging and understanding that we all fail. The important thing, the lesson, is to “find a way.”

Johnny Cash - American IVThroughout the American IV album, you hear an older, weaker voice. But one still reveling parts of the inner soul of a man sharing his deepest feelings through his songs. Things that would be too difficult to share in person are, somehow, ok in song.

In the song Hurt, which ironically was not written by Johnny Cash, the contrast is overwhelming. The wisdom. The regrets. Yet the honest acknowledgement and acceptance of who he is and where he is ending.

Understanding the futility of reliving past regrets, he allows them to fade like “old stains.” He mocks his material success by referring to it as the “empire of dirt.”

It’s a haunting song. An honest acknowledgement. Yet one we can, and should, learn from.

Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Phil. 3:13-14 (NIV)

Click here to view Video – Hurt, By Johnny Cash

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