If you wanted to come up with a phrase that might describe the theme of John Carter Cash’s life, “moving from darkness into the light” might work as good as any.
After talking with him for only an hour or so, I can’t claim to know the man. But those few words came to mind when I started thinking about how to write this story.
Moving from darkness into the light… Yeah, that might work.
“It’s a Choice”
The Grammy Award-winning record producer, musician, author, actor, and filmmaker understands the dark side of human nature. Like members of his family, John has struggled with depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and thoughts that he might not be living up to his potential or purpose in life.
But the difference between him and those who choose darkness is that John yielded to the light and found healing in it.
“People find what they’re looking for,” said the accomplished son of country music legends June Carter and Johnny Cash. “Some may dwell on the negative… I look for the furtherment of hope, strength, good and beauty. It’s a choice, and I choose the light.”
Chance, The Bad Guy
I’m not an entertainment writer. I tell stories about average people who overcome adversity and then make a difference in others’ lives. But I seized the opportunity to talk with John, one of the stars in an upcoming Western produced by my friend, Dan Searles.
In Was Once a Hero, John portrays Chance, an awful man hellbent on destroying the lives of two innocent kids because somewhere along the way, darkness crept into his heart. The only deterrent between those kids and Chance is an old man suffering from dementia.
“I put myself in that character,” John said. Chance was evil, but “the character wasn’t all dark. There was something else there.” Chance, unlike John, however, extinguished whatever goodness that flickered in his soul. He didn’t choose moving from darkness into the light.
“He is a stone-cold psychotic,” Dan said, “and yet John brings pathos and a sense of the guy’s inner pain. It’s quite a performance. John Carter Cash belongs in movies.”
The Hope of Redemption
Perhaps Director David McClister thought so too when he encouraged John to embrace moviemaking and add to his other creative pursuits: mushroom foraging, beekeeping, and writing children’s books, biographies, and even a family cookbook.
“I do a lot of things fair, but I’m steadfastly creative,” John said. “I like a colorful rainbow over a black suit.”
John’s debut movie, Dragon Song, released in late 2019 and has since racked up multiple awards.
Inspired by a similarly named song that John wrote 32 years ago at one of the lowest points in his life, the movie opens with Sheriff Lamberic White, played by John, brutally thrashing a former friend, a drunken brute named Spiney Shamblings.
It ends in a different place and time as if to say the inner evils of man, and the hope and possibility of redemption are transcendent.
“Perhaps it’s a dream. Maybe it’s reality or something that happens in the future,” John said. “I leave it open… I want people to wonder, what the hell was that?”
One thing is certain. The movie lives up to one of “Dragon Song’s” most powerful and haunting lyrics… “In every man’s eye there’s fear and a horrible passion.”
A Look at Fear and Horrible Passion
As a kid, John spent nearly as much time on the road with his parents as he did at home with them in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
“During those years, there had been nothing I hated more than drugs and addiction,” John wrote in Anchored in Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash, a biography about his mother. “I saw Dad’s addiction as the thing that tore our family apart.”
Lying in a hotel bed next to his father’s at night, John would hear his father’s labored breathing. Breathe. Breathe. He counted the seconds between respirations, debating whether to tell his mother. But he knew the outcome if he did. She’d “discover that Dad was high again” and a fight would ensue.
Somewhere in young John’s mind, an idea started forming. If he wanted to avoid emotional hurt, he’d have to shield his heart.
The strategy didn’t work.
The young man became an addict himself. So did his sisters. “Given all the problems Mom had lived through due to the devastating addictions of her husband and children, it seems impossible to believe that she would fall under the spell of drugs herself,” John revealed in the biography. “But she did.”
Whenever asked what it’s like being the flesh-and-blood result of the world’s greatest love story, John always sets the record straight. “It wasn’t the greatest love story that ever was.”
But it was a love story, nonetheless.
Moving from Darkness Into the Light
Despite their human failings, John’s parents passed along the greatest gifts a mother and father could impart: unconditional love. Humility. Persistence.
“I’d rather be remembered as a good father,” said John, the father of five. “My dad taught me that.”
Above all else, Johnny and June modeled an abiding faith in God even when battling their own demons. “In faith, sometimes we think we need to understand God. In no way can we comprehend God. There’s freedom in that… The kid who wrote that song (“Dragon Song”) didn’t understand that then.”
A couple of decades ago, after years of on-again, off-again addiction, John finally let God work a healing in his heart.
“Nothing can take away my salvation,” he said. “It was already given to me. It can’t be robbed. I can’t even try to turn it away, my grounding in faith. When I struggle, I always go back to that.”
John learned the wisdom of moving from darkness into the light.