In an exclusive essay for PEOPLE, John Carter Cash, the musician son of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, pays tribute to his dad 20 years after his death
John Carter Cash is remembering American legend Johnny Cash, an icon we called the Man in Black — a man he called his father.
Cash Sr., a contemporary of rock and roll pioneers like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, died 20 years ago, on Sept. 12, 2003 at age 71. His legacy, though, lives on. It lives on in country music classics like “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire." And it lives on in his five children, including daughter Rosanne Cash, 68, a music star in her own right, and son John Carter, 53, a singer-songwriter and musician.
John Carter is the only son of Johnny and his second wife, June Carter Cash, who died six months before Johnny. He’s ensuring that his father's legacy as one of country music’s finest singer-songwriters continues to shine, via the new book Johnny Cash: The Life in Lyrics (out now), which compiles 125 of the Man in Black's compositions and tells the stories behind them. It also includes rare photographs and previously unseen writings.
The words are a window into the soul of a man that John Carter, a father of five, loves and admires — as a fan, as a fellow musician, as his son. In this exclusive essay for PEOPLE, he talks about his father's titanic influence on him — and on us all.
Since you passed on, I see you every day. Modern times have bestowed a blessing. The internet has become a lifeline into history, media and society, and if I wonder how you felt about something, I only have to “log on.” The entire world is at my fingertips. I just “search.” It’s easy to find your interviews from radio, press, film and television. Johnny Cash is everywhere, but truthfully, you have moved on.
Nashville has boomed in a way I don’t think you would have expected. Although your presence remains in the Country Music Hall of Fame — where, in its sacred rotunda, your plaque reminds visitors of your membership — much has changed.
Now, newly manufactured skyscrapers overwhelm the once humbler skyline. “Nashvegas” is not the same town we knew years ago. Yearly, hundreds of thousands of tourists walk the downtown streets. There are billboards everywhere, many of which display advertisements for museums, restaurants, and honky tonks bearing the names of famous personalities.
Perhaps the most dominant bears your likeness, leading fans to The Johnny Cash Museum. It opened in 2011, before the cranes went up. Yes, our hometown is alive in unfamiliar and astounding ways, but surely, your legacy began this boom. Yet, it’s still a place where dreams can come true, and gratefully, Nashville’s heart endures. Your music and soul are very much alive within that heart.
Thirty minutes north of the metropolitan center, I often walk the land that was once yours. Your presence is there. When I record music in the Cash Cabin Studio, your spirit continues to inspire the musicians, technicians, and my creativity.
When I sit quietly and read a spiritual book, perhaps by Kahlil Gibran, Og Mandino or the Bible, I recall your voice. I read the words and remember them as your own teachings. Now, these writings give me faith in myself and remind me to strive to be kind to all, as you and Mom always were. You taught me if we are willing, we are all teachers and students. I am still your student and thank you. But I miss you, still.
You lived several lives in your 71 years, but they can all be distilled down to two: first, John R, Cash, the dedicated father, husband and mentor to family; and second, Johnny Cash. I love and have always loved them both, and the second I never lose sight of, but how do I stay in touch with you, Dad — with who you really were? I have done this by studying your lyrics, poetry and other writings.
You chose love and left behind your voice and your words, Now, they breathe beauty not only into the lives of your children and family, but to people who love and respect you worldwide. I am not the only person who feels it's important to know you better. And so, with a great deal of help, I put together Johnny Cash: The Life in Lyrics. The book collects 60 years of your writings, from "Hey Porter" and "Big River" to "The Man Comes Around" and "Like the 309." Studying your writings has helped me recall you more clearly, even better than before you left this world.
Dad, although you are very much alive in many ways, I feel I get closest to you through your words, and I am still reading, still listening and still learning. And in doing so, I appreciate you more every day.
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