After young Johnny Cash’s voice broke into a booming basso profundo, “My mother said, ‘God has his hand on you — don’t ever forget the gift,’ ” he recalled. “That was the first time she ever called it that. Singing and writing for my voice — that was the gift.”
A new documentary, The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash, allows the country-music pioneer to tell his story in his own voice for the first time. “We uncovered 60 hours of audio recordings of Johnny sharing the intimate details of his journey,” director Thom Zimny tells Closer. The tapes were made in the ’90s when Johnny was writing his autobiography. In the film, Johnny recounts his rough childhood in Arkansas as one of seven kids of a cotton farmer.
“I remember he was drinkin’ when I was very small and the terrible abuse my mother suffered,” he said. “It’s strange my dad never hit me a lick. On the other hand, he never hugged us. He never even came close to telling us he loved us. Never once.”
At 22 in 1954, Johnny wed Vivian Liberto, and the couple had four daughters. But he was torn between his family and career — and his addictions to alcohol and painkillers didn’t help. “There was always a battle going on at my house,” Johnny said. Remembers daughter Rosanne, “My mother did not know how to navigate it. She had tremendous fear, confusion, grief, this enormous sense of loss and
she became desperate to hold him at home.”
Yet it was a hopeless fight, as Johnny became hooked on touring and fell in love with bandmate June Carter. “My kids suffered and Vivian suffered,” Johnny said. “I wasn’t there for the graduations and the school plays. I wasn’t there to see them dress up for the proms. I was living the life of a rambler.”
Johnny and Vivian divorced in 1967, and he got hitched to June the following year. “Some people seem to think it was happily ever after once they were married,” says their son, John Carter Cash, who was born in 1970. “It was not.”
Johnny’s substance-abuse problems intensified. “I was taking sleeping pills in the day to calm my nerves, then doubling up at night to go to sleep. I was hallucinating every day from the morphine,” he said. “I was weak, I was wasted.” But he was ultimately saved by the power of love.
“Mine and June’s struggle to survive and stay alive, it’s a fabulous love story,” Johnny said. “She was the greatest woman I had ever known. She lifted me up when I was weak and when I would fall. She would encourage me when I felt discouraged. She would love me when I felt like nobody did anymore.”
After Johnny finally got clean, he repaired his relationships with all of his children. “He talked about the beauty and peace he found reconnecting with them,” Zimny says. Less than four months after June died in 2003, Johnny passed away at 71. But he had a grateful heart.
“I’m thankful for daughters and a son who love me,” he said. “I’m thankful for a soulmate. I’m thankful God has inspired me to write. I’m thankful for the gift.”
The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash is out now.
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