“He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.
Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.”
— Kris Kristofferson,”The Pilgrim: Chapter 33″
This past week, instead of doing anything I was supposed to do, I read the newest biography of Johnny Cash by Robert Hilburn entitled: Johnny Cash: The Life. I picked it up on a rainy day in Nashville last week when preparing for an interview that would change the course of my already questionable life plan.
Thanksgiving Breaks are starting to take on a weird significance in my life. They are always slightly dramatic, and tend to make me face my current path and then ask: “Where are you going, next?” This past break had me pulling one of the stunts that I’m famously great at: checking out. By that I mean, I literally cut off the world except for maybe two people. I reconnected with an old friend who has, quite unselfishly, always been there to cut me some slack when I’m being hard on myself. I stayed with them for 4 days straight, ignoring phone calls and social media, and watching a whole lot of Key & Peele. In a lot of ways, it was relieving. In other ways, it reminded me of how I have this insatiable pattern in my life of always trying to go backwards. To most people who know me and see me moving from town to town, and changing hobbies, to different career paths and dreams — it would seem like I’m the queen of moving forward, opposed to my hometown friends. It’s almost funny how wrong that assumption is.
I’m never moving forward. Instead, I’m just running. And I know it, because I’m great at it. If I can just go to a different town, or meet a new group of people, I can really be myself. This time will be different. It never is, because I’m running from myself and that is the problem.
But the one thing that is a constant is how undeniably awful I am at school. Not only do I have zero concentration skills, but I just can’t seem to make it fit. The university life is too big for me. In a way, I feel like I’m drowning in the masses — instead of growing as an individual. So in the midst of me screwing up yet again in most of my classes, I saw a posting about an internship with Good Time Inc. on Twitter. They were looking for “Spring Interns” and were accepting applications for the next few weeks. For those who don’t know about them, they are a small music management company in Nashville, and they work with independent artists like Matt Wertz, and Ben Rector, and wait for it…. Drew Holcomb.
So I applied. And I let it go. And when I didn’t hear back, I wasn’t surprised, but then one day during Thanksgiving Break, Drew Holcomb posted on his Twitter that for those who were interested, they needed to contact the marketing manager herself. So, on the last day of break, I sat on my friend’s bathroom counter and typed up an email on my Iphone and pressed: Send. Without much other thought, I packed up my stuff and headed back to Knoxville…thoroughly prepared to attempt to salvage what was left of my grades for the semester. But a few days later I got an email back. They wanted to interview me. I was shocked.
So with some advice, I drove back to Nashville. With an hour to spare before my interview, I stopped at my new favorite place in the city: The Johnny Cash Museum, and I picked up the new biography that I had heard so much about in the past few months. Long story short, my interview went well. In fact, the moment I walked into the marketing manager’s office, she had a Johnny Cash poster on her wall. So of course I shared my love and we both talked about how we have the Folsom Prison “flicking the bird” poster hanging above our beds…
I returned back to Knoxville, still prepared to finish with school. And then the inevitable happened: I checked out again. I slept for days. I even felt sick. I missed work like an idiot, and then felt too embarrassed to call and explain. I did it again. I missed classes and professors emailed me demanding excuses. You know what I did?
I sat in my room and religiously read all 650 pages of the new Cash book I had bought while in Nashville. I bombed my finals. Even the one with my favorite professor…which I’m still kind of giving myself hell for. But I just knew that I was done, and that if this thing in Nashville didn’t work out, then I would figure something out.
Well, I got the email yesterday that I got it.
Never in a million years did I think I would have the chance to intern with a company that manages my favorite band. Its insane. In a lot of ways, it humbling. And others, scary. I left Lipscomb University in Nashville two years ago, broken and disoriented. I felt like I wasn’t growing at all. I came to Knoxville to grow. To learn how to express myself. Slowly, its helped me get there…but I know I have a long way to go. And going back to Nashville just reminds me of what I was trying to escape from. But I’m going there this time with a renewed outlook and maybe, at the very least, a little tougher skin.
I sat down tonight and finished the Cash biography. It blew me away for a lot of reasons, but this is what I picked up about my favorite Man in Black:
Like Kris Kristofferson sang about in his song “The Pilgrim”, Johnny Cash was the epitome of a walking contradiction. He sang about hell fire and brimstone, and yet had cheated on both of his wives and was hooked on pills, on and off, literally until the day he died. His drug use destroyed his singing voice on multiple performances, he trashed hotel rooms, cars, and should have died in various ways over his 50 year career, including setting a forest fire in his camper he named “Jesse James.” Most of his life, it seemed, he was hell bent on destroying himself. Even as a child he seemed pensive, lonely, and dark.
But for all of his darkness, he showed an equal amount of light. My favorite story in the book was when Cash was just a kid, walking the street of Dyess, Arkansas, when he heard music coming from a nearby house. Curious, he walked up to it to find a boy his age, singing and strumming a guitar. His name was Jesse and he had a bad case of polio, making him walk funny and one of his arms was significantly longer than the other, with one of his hand being shriveled. Cash befriended the kid and went with him everywhere, one of his first real friends in the small town. He was known to give randomly to fans or people on the street. Another thing that struck a chord with me was the way he approached women. Many stars of that time, like Elvis, were rounding up young fans and having flings with them in their dressing rooms. Although the biography didn’t deny the fact that Cash had his share of hookups, one friend pointed out that Johnny was never really into that. If he was having an affair, or interested in another woman, no matter what his urges, he was always searching for love. In his most notable flings, he was still a great romantic.
More important than all of those things though, was how desperately Cash wanted people to know Jesus. From the day his brother died, he swore he was going to be a gospel singer, and spread the word throughout the world. Every time Cash made a record, he was always waiting to make one that was a gospel tune. It was almost annoying how vigilant he was about it. Even in his last days he was wanting to revisit the old black gospel songs and make an album of it, and he said that if there was one song he wanted to define his entire career, it would be: “The Man Comes Around.”
When it comes to this aspect of Cash, I didn’t appreciate his outlook on faith until I read this book. I’ve ready countless books on the man and his religion, but reading about his life, helped me understand his faith. Cash was a huge believer in redemption. He fought for hardened criminals, and the “poor and the beaten down.” I think more than anything, he fought for them, because he knew he was one of them. He believed in redemption so strongly, because he knew that he needed it the most. Although he was clearly spreading the message of Christ, he didn’t seem to be so much about the religion, as he was about the powers of good and evil. The joys of salvation. The peace he felt in his most intimate encounters with the only thing that could save him from himself, his humanity: his faith.
Hilburn ended the biography with this statement from Rosanne Cash, and I finally realized why I’ve been obsessed with this man for so long:
“Everyone carries burdens around with them. I believe the thing about Dad that people find so easy to relate to is that he was willing to expose his most cumbersome burdens, his most consuming darknesses. He wasn’t afraid to go through the fire and say. “I fell down. I’ve made mistakes. I’m weak. I’m hurt.” But in doing so, he gained some sort of defining strength. Every moment of darkness enabled him to better see the light.”
I change my mind a lot, on a lot of things. I waver when it comes to pinpointing who I am, and what I want, and what makes me genuinely happy…but I can honestly say that no matter what this world throws at me, I will always believe honesty is the most valuable human characteristic to have on this earth. Cash rarely hid his sins. He was quiet, and simple, but he spoke with intensity and tried to sing about the things that mattered. I struggle every day with being completely honest, and completely open, but at the end of my life…I hope to look back and say: I was completely transparent. People knew who I was, and they knew what was in my head. Cash lived recklessly, but he lived big. I want to experience, without being afraid of what it means or letting those experiences define me. Cash did a lot of “bad things” but I don’t think one person in those 600 pages ever once thought he was a bad man, even at his lowest and darkest. I love that.
This may be my last post for a while. (Or not, but I’m going to try.) I want to focus on really doing when I get back to Nashville.One of the downsides of being a thinker and writer, is you rarely experience as much as you think about experiencing. While most of my friends will be heading toward the path of graduation and beyond…I think my life is going in a bit of a different direction. I don’t really know where yet. But I’m hoping that the more I live boldly, the farther I will go. On my own terms.
I’ll leave y’all with a song that has nothing to do with Johnny Cash
“Moon River, wider than a mile, I’m crossin’ you in style, some day. Oh dream maker, you heart-breaker, wherever you’re going, I’m going your way.”