"Meet Me in Heaven"
Those four words were inscribed on the tombstone of 14-year-old Jack Cash, the older brother of J.R. "Johnny" Cash, who was just 11 years old when Jack died following a horrific table-saw accident at a school workshop near the family's
On Wednesday, for those who believe in the afterlife – as Cash most certainly did – a deep friendship that lasted four decades on earth has been rekindled in heaven as Cash is reunited with the man he long considered his spiritual mentor, Billy Graham. The evangelic preacher, who was one of the Cash family's closest friends, died at his
Johnny Cash's personal spiritual journey was one fraught with overwhelming insecurity. Gripped as he had been by his addictions, especially throughout the Sixties when he was constantly touring, Cash nevertheless maintained the belief that if he didn't "get right with God," eternal hellfire and damnation awaited him in the afterlife. By all accounts, his deep religious convictions sustained him even in the darkest of days. And throughout those most difficult times, one of the people he turned to often was Reverend Graham, who offered counsel and prayer.
On May 24th, 1970, (his daughter Rosanne Cash's 15th birthday) two months after his wife June gave birth to son John Carter Cash, Johnny was in Knoxville, Tennessee, for the first of his numerous appearances at one of Billy Graham's Crusades. "It is the icing on the Christian cake, to be able to perform on these Crusades," Cash said. "I love to appear with Billy; I love to hear him preach." In spite of showing up for more than a few of the crusade appearances while under the influence, Cash's faith in God never wavered, and, according to his son, neither did Graham's devotion to his longtime friend.
"Billy and my father maintained their friendship all through their lives," John Carter Cash told Cash biographer Robert Hilburn. "When my father fell short, he could always reach out to Billy. Billy didn't judge my father; he was there as his friend unconditionally. Billy would lift him up and support him and say, 'You can do this. Stand back up. You know who you are.' From that point on, Dad would tell you his purpose in life was to spread the word of Jesus Christ."
Johnny Cash would also credit Graham with giving him the courage and confidence to introduce spiritual themes into his songwriting. His 1971 LP, Man in Black, in particular, addressed global issues that were troubling to the singer-songwriter, from political unrest and abject poverty to the controversial Vietnam War. The LP opens with a track called "The Preacher Said, 'Jesus Said,'" which features Cash singing the verses and Reverend Graham interjecting spoken Biblical passages, such as "Jesus said, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.'" The album was released in May of that year, two months after The Johnny Cash Show went off the air at ABC, and reached Number One on the country chart but performed poorly on the multi-genre Billboard 200. "Man in Black," however, would become a signature song and a defining characteristic throughout the remainder of Cash's life and beyond. Cash and Graham would duet on 'The Preacher Said, 'Jesus Said,'" on the February 24th episode of The Johnny Cash Show, which was devoted entirely to gospel music and also featured Mahalia Jackson, the Oak Ridge Boys, Blackwood Brothers, Staple Singers and the Edwin Hawkins Singers. Watch Graham (appearing only in shadow, the outline of a cross behind him) with Cash in the clip above.
Another highlight of Graham's appearance on that episode was a sermon he delivered, likely the first and only time a preacher was afforded such an opportunity during a network variety series. In his message, which takes place on the stage of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, where the Cash show was taped each week, he explains the Ryman's origins as a gospel tabernacle, and speaks of the historical aspects of music in both Judaism and Christianity.