Melanie and I have been watching Country Music – A Film by Ken Burns on PBS. While I am not a big country fan, the documentary has been fascinating as it follows the evolution of country music from its roots to its modern day iteration.
Through all the decades of societal upheaval, various musical influences, recording artists, financial growth, through all the diversity that makes country music what it is today, one thing remains constant: How many mainline stars have fallen prey to drugs, alcohol and divorce. They are like moths to a flame.
This, of course, is not unique to country music. It plagues other entertainment genres: rock and pop music, acting, comedy, etc. It is an industry rife with moral decrepitude, egomania, privilege and abuse. Yet many remain enamored with music, movies, TV and the glitz and glamor of stardom.
Johnny Cash and Hank Williams are prominently featured in the films. Burns chronicles both men’s excessive drug and alcohol abuse, adultery, divorces, restless travel from county fairs to radio shows to promotional appearances to studio recordings – and scores of cancelled performances due to drug stupors.
But another interesting feature of both of these performers: they were “religious” in their song writing and professions of faith. Williams wrote the famous song “I Saw the Light” along with other religious songs as, “Ready to Go Home,” “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul,” “When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels,” “When the book of Life Is Read,” “Sermon on the Mount,” “Lord, I’m Coming Home,” “Let the Spirit Descend,” “Jesus Died for Me,” “Jesus Is Calling,” “Jesus Remembered Me,” “A Home in Heaven.” Hank Williams died at the age of 29 from heart failure due to long-standing drug abuse, just seven months after divorcing his wife, Audrey, and two months after remarrying a woman who was not yet legally divorced from her husband. That marriage was posthumously declared invalid. His first marriage to Audrey was also illegal as her divorce from a previous husband had not yet been finalized.
Johnny Cash grew up a Southern Baptist in Dyess, Arkansas and was baptized at twelve. Cash recorded such songs as “Wings in the Morning,” “Over the Next Hill,” “When He Comes,” “I’m a Newborn Man,” “O Come Angel Band,” “What on Earth (Will You Do for Heaven’s Sake).” “In the mid-1970s, Cash and his wife, June, completed a course of study in the bible through Christian International Bible College. Cash often performed at Billy Graham Crusades. At a Tallahassee Crusade in 1986, June and Johnny sang his song, ‘One of These Days I’m Gonna Sit Down And Talk to Paul.’ At a notable performance in Arkansas in 1989, Johnny Cash spoke to attendees of his commitment to the salvation of drug dealers and alcoholics. He then sang, ‘Family Bible’ … Cash is credited with having converted actor and singer John Schneider to Christianity” (Wikipedia).
Shortly after his wife June’s death in 2003, Johnny Cash performed at the Carter Family Fold near Bristol, Virginia. When he took the stage he read a tribute to June: “The spirit of June Carter overshadows me tonight with the love she had for me and the love I have for her. We connect somewhere between here and Heaven. She came down for a short visit, I guess, from Heaven … to give me courage and inspiration like she always has … I thank God for June Carter. I love her with all my heart” (ibid).
Cash had a wife and four children early in his career, but Maybelle Carter and her daughters began touring with Cash, and Johnny and June soon began an adulterous romance. June had two previous marriages, and Johnny left his wife, Vivian, to marry June.
This is not an article on country music stars, hypocrisy or divorce, per se. It is intended as an expose on how powerful sin is. While not many of us aspire to be nationally recognized recording artists, we do have our own ambitions, weaknesses, blind spots and temptations. One of Satan’s best tactics is to allow us to maintain a semblance of religiousness while exempting ourselves from the full rigors of faithfulness.
Success – popularity, wealth, the “troubled soul” aura that so often defines celebrities – is a powerful cover for immorality. “Cash declared he was ‘the biggest sinner of them all’, and viewed himself overall as a complicated and contradictory man” (ibid). He was a brooding, restless, social warrior and sex symbol that exuded carnal values. Yet he tried to paper over the appetites of the flesh with his religious songs, Bible studies and professed “love” for his home-wrecking wife. “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications …” (Mt 15:18).
And like most entertainers, he was addicted to the applause of the crowds. Long ago Jesus, the one Johnny Cash and Hank Williams wrote and sang about said, “I do not receive honor from men … How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:41, 44). Seeking man’s approval and adulation is its own drug, and under its influence the Pharisees, priests and elders of the Jewish nation turned a deaf ear to God and their Scriptures and murdered the one who threatened their ego-supply (Jn 11:47-51).
But the Jewish leaders had their constituents, their sycophants and supporters who were also deceived by sin (Jn 12:42-43). We may not be the one in the spotlight, but we can be so enamored with our “idols” that we buy what they are selling and fiercely defend them. If nothing else, Satan is a consummate salesman. Caveat emptor – “let the buyer beware.”