Johnny Cash had lived on the road for years, traveling and singing his songs about killers and floods, jailhouses and whores. He ate pills to keep running and became “leather and bones,” he said, and there was nothing left of him. He was strung out, wasted and had no idea who he was anymore. He thought that in the black depths of Nickajack Cave he could put an end to his life and nobody would ever find his wasted body. Only God would know where he was and he was ready to let God put him “wherever He puts people like me,” as he said later in his autobiography. That heavy guilt had wholly overcome him and he felt there was no redemption for him anymore. He had no control—death was the only way to make the guilt of what he had become stop. He wanted to be swallowed in the blackness of the Nickajack Cave and of the peaceful blackness of death. He had laid himself down to die.
Then something happened. He later said: I didn’t believe it at first. I felt something very powerful, a sensation of utter peace, clarity and sobriety. I couldn’t understand it. How, after being awake for so long and driving my body so hard and taking so many pills—dozens of them, scores, even hundreds—could I possibly feel all right? The feeling persisted though, and then my mind started focusing on God. There in Nickajack Cave I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea: I was not in charge of my destiny. I was not in charge of my own death. I was going to die at God’s time, not mine.
The Man in Black then raised his head. He started to move. He had no idea how to get back out of the cave but he crawled in whatever direction he could find, feeling before himself with his hands. He soon felt a breath of wind on his back—he turned around and followed that wind until he saw a light.
When he came out of the blackness he found June Carter standing at the mouth of Nickajack Cave. She had a basket of food and gave him something to drink. She held his arm and Johnny told her that God had saved him in that cave. She drove him back home and Johnny told her that he wasn’t going back to what he was before. He had been unable to forgive himself for what he’d become but there in the blackness of Nickajack Cave he realized that God would forgive him.
The traditional symbolism of the cave tells that those dark spaces beneath the earth are where spiritual death takes place prior to rebirth. Passing through a cave represents a change of state, or a re-entry into the womb, and re-emergence represents that rebirth or spiritual enlightenment. The story of Johnny Cash at Nickajack Cave fits this mythic symbolism perfectly. He entered Nickajack Cave as the Man in Black—strung-out, road-worn and with a deep darkness consuming his soul. He entered that cave as a guilty man but the Man in Black re-emerged forgiven and a Man of God.
But he still had songs to sing. In his last years, Johnny Cash recorded some old gospel songs. One of those songs seems to tell the tale of what happened to him in the dark depths of Nickajack Cave. As he sang this song there was a new truth in his old voice. It was not the shaky guilt that was there when he sang about tying Delia down or watching that man in Reno die. It was a religious conviction. Johnny didn’t write the song. It’s an old spiritual that tells of the righteous brutality of God rather than of the brutality and guilt that Johnny often sang about—that age old evil guilt that is born into all men: