Johnny Cash's son opens up on parents' addictions

LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - If you thought country music outlaw Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, lived happily ever after when the final credits rolled for “Walk the Line,” the movie about their early romance, their son would like to set you straight.

Johnny Cash performs in New York in this April 6, 1999 file photo. If you thought Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, lived happily ever after when the final credits rolled for "Walk the Line," the movie about their early romance, their son would like to set you straight. REUTERS/Jeff Christensen

John Carter Cash, 37, has written a book recounting his father’s lifelong struggle with drugs and revealing for the first time that his mother also was a major pill-popper, often paranoid that her third husband was unfaithful.

The 35-year marriage of the two disparate personalities looked like a fairy-tale union from the outside, but “the reality is that the suffering continued and it worsened, if anything, throughout the years,” Cash said in an interview.

With two junkies for parents, not to mention half-sisters who got hooked on drugs, it’s no surprise that he eventually became an addict himself. Although the young Cash got to travel the world, meet presidents and live in luxury, his childhood was filled with constant fear that his parents would divorce.

Adding to the insecurity, financial woes in the 1980s -- when his father’s recording career was at a low ebb -- forced his parents to sell jewelry so that they could pay their large domestic staff.

“Anchored in Love: The Life and Legacy of June Carter Cash” (Thomas Nelson; $24.99), though, is no Kitty Kelley-style exhumation of two beloved country music icons. Due in stores June 5, it is instead a poignant tribute to his mother, who gracefully lived in her husband’s larger-than-life shadow publicly, but ran the show at home.


Cash’s parents died within months of each other in 2003. Johnny Cash had been ill for years, but no one expected him to outlive his wife, who had always seemed far healthier.

“My parents’ love for each other lasted throughout their whole life,” Cash said. “They didn’t give up ... They accepted each other totally unconditionally.”

They just had an odd way of showing it sometimes.

In one traumatic incident as a 10-year-old, Cash tearfully witnessed his parents fighting for hours and hours at their second home in Jamaica. As his proud father fired off verbal insults -- the fights never got physical -- his mother threatened to leave him for good.

His parents continued arguing out of his presence, and eventually summoned the youngster to deliver some news. He was braced to hear about their divorce plans, not for this announcement: They had decided to renew their marriage vows.

As “Walk the Line” showed, Johnny Cash took massive quantities of pills to deal with the rigors of touring and other personal demons. He cleaned up with June’s guidance, but relapsed at the end of the 1970s.

His son was humiliated when his school pals saw his father in his frequent trance-like state, with slurred speech and bloodshot eyes. The book recounts an endless cycle of near-death experiences, rehab stints and interventions.

“My father, he wouldn’t be belligerent or violent,” Cash said. “It was never that way. He just would simply sort of slip out of the picture. It happened the same way with my mother, later.”


June lived in denial of her husband’s addictions, believing that the good man she loved would always shine through. She was compulsive herself, especially when it came to spending money.

Their homes were overloaded with massive pieces of furniture, huge collections of dinner sets, pottery, linens and silverware. Other husbands might chop up their spouse’s credit card, but Johnny Cash was the perfect enabler.

“My father would come home with pearls, and put ‘em around her neck,” Cash said. “He was often the instigator of huge, unnecessary purchases.”

Things took a more dangerous turn in the early 1990s when the cumulative effect of her family’s drug problems combined with her own aches to drive June to prescription narcotics. She stopped speaking in full sentences and would drift off into her own world.

“She maintained strong control of her addiction,” Cash said, adding that any attempts at confrontation were pointless. Her husband, needless to say, was reluctant to step in.

Cash, who keeps busy as a music producer, said his parents would be happy about the book, because they never wanted anything covered up.

“The honest thing is that my parents wanted to help people. That is part of my responsibility, to carry on that legacy,” he said. “Hopefully the point of the book is long-lasting love, even though it may be through long suffering.”