Songs As Sanctuary: Jenn Morson on Johnny Cash


Ever since I can remember, when I saw Johnny Cash, I saw my dad. No, my father wasn’t a musician. He wasn’t even southern, and he didn’t wear black that I recall. There were some physical similarities, I suppose, the thick black hair, a bulbous and pronounced nose, but more so it was the face of defeat they both wore. It was undeniable: both of these men had been broken and all the king’s horses couldn’t put them back together again.


When my dad passed away in 1998, I was 22 years old. A lifetime of smoking Chesterfield Kings and counting days in beer cans had caught up with him. I didn’t have much of a faith to fall onto, because really, what kind of God lets a person live through that much shit in 22 years? For the first time, I stayed home from church without any guilt whatsoever. There were far better uses for my time, like sleeping or staring at the wall. No amount of praying had saved my father, and I was physically exhausted from my failed attempts. I eventually lost all hope as well, and at some point my family scooped up what was physically left of me and dragged me home. I’ve seen insect exoskeletons littering the sidewalk with more life pulsing through them.


Not long after my father’s death, time caught up with Johnny Cash. Just months before his passing, however, he recorded a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt.” In spite of my attraction to the macabre, I’d never paid much attention to NIN or Trent Reznor, so this song was mostly new to me. In the video, I saw Johnny Cash as I had last seen my father – barely this side of the veil, his physical person completely destroyed by what life had done to him, some with and some without his consent or participation.  Scenes flash from his home, earlier photos and statuettes, as well as old film where the light had yet been extinguished from his eyes. You can see his broad shoulders, not unlike my own father’s from my limited memory, still upright, still fighting.


As he mustered the little energy he had left to sing out the words, I heard the pain, the regret, the helplessness.


“And you could have it all

My empire of dirt

I will let you down

I will make you hurt”


But I didn’t hear Johnny Cash. Or even Trent Reznor. I heard my father, and a lifetime of regret for which he never had the strength to seek forgiveness. Unlike Reznor, who wrote these words before spiraling into his own personal disasters, Cash was at the end of his life and resigned to his fate. This was his making amends, his wife seen in the background, also months from her own death, cosigning the confessional. They had fought and lost, and this was their legacy.


What have I become

My sweetest friend

Everyone I know

Goes away in the end”


But then I heard someone else. Then I heard God speaking to me through the Man in Black.


“You are someone else

I am still right here”


God and father are inseparable to children, and for those abandoned by the human version, a deep distrust for the eternal cannot help but grow. But in that tangled ball of father, God, and Johnny Cash, I heard God. I heard permission to be angry. I heard permission to fight back. I heard permission to wait until I was ready. He was still right there.


I found God again in the broken body of Johnny Cash.


Jenn Morson lives and writes outside of Washington, D.C. You can read her other work at: or on twitter @jennmorson 


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