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Documentary delves into the faith of Arkansas-native Johnny Cash

Michael Hibblen
The documentary film's director Ben Smallbone and producer Jerilyn Esquibel speak after a screening Thursday at the Central Arkansas Library System's Ron Robinson Theater.

A new documentary about singer Johnny Cash is screening in theaters nationwide on Monday through Wednesday. While telling the full life story of the Arkansas-native, the film also highlights the role of his faith.

Cash often spoke about growing up singing gospel songs as his family labored picking cotton. An effort to end his life deep inside a cave at the height of a drug addiction failed, he said, after hearing the voice of God. “Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon” looks at the ups and downs of his life, and how his belief in a higher power prevailed.

The film opens with sweeping shots of the east Arkansas farming community where the Cash family moved when he was 3. Dyess was created during the Great Depression as a resettlement colony for impoverished farmers, with the Cash family being among 500 who were provided a piece of land to farm, a new house and the needed outbuildings.

Ben Smallbone, the film’s director, said in an interview that it was important to show that landscape.

“Coming to Arkansas and capturing Dyess, I never felt like it had been filmed to the beauty of what it was, and in the cotton fields, in the blooming season to the harvest season, to the boyhood home and the surrounding colony, [Dyess] was such a pivotal part of his story, and we wanted to make sure that we documented that,” Smallbone said.

The documentary made its Arkansas debut Thursday at the Central Arkansas Library System’s Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock. Smallbone and producer Jerilyn Esquibel spoke after the screening to an audience that featured many people who have been instrumental in preserving Cash’s heritage in the state. The crowd included elected officials, sculptor Kevin Kresse, who is creating a statue that will eventually help represent the state in the U.S. Capitol, and leaders of Arkansas State University. The university oversaw the restoration of the boyhood home a decade ago.

The film tells the familiar story of Cash going to Memphis where Sam Phillips turned down his request to record gospel songs at Sun Records, suggesting they wouldn’t sell. Instead, Phillips told Cash to come back with some original songs, which were recorded in 1955. That started a grueling lifestyle of constantly touring the country, sometimes playing several shows a day. Like many performers of the era, Cash turned to amphetamines to keep going.

By 1967, years of drug and alcohol abuse had taken a toll on Cash. He felt his music career was over, and after being strung out on pills for several days without eating, Cash went into a cave near Chattanooga, Tennessee and laid down, wanting to die. But the filmmaker says after being asleep for a while, Cash woke up.

“He said he audibly heard God’s voice echoing through the darkness of the cave, and I believe that it was true because he was, for the first time in decades, pursuing God, and God revealed himself to him because of that,” Smallbone said.

Cash got treatment for his drug problem and his career experienced a resurgence in 1968 with the release of the live album “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.” The following year, he began hosting a variety TV show for ABC, which, like his concerts, often featured gospel songs, despite objections from network executives. Cash also began an unlikely friendship with evangelist Billy Graham.

After watching the documentary last week, Smallbone spoke with Arkansas First Lady Susan Hutchinson about Cash’s spirituality.

“You cannot deny a person’s story, you cannot deny their journey,” Smallbone said. “Johnny lived it so loudly and proudly. You can’t question that.”

“He knows who he met up with in that cave,” Hutchinson responded.

Hutchinson told KUAR News that she greatly appreciated the documentary.

“I’m just really proud and thankful that the family shared the story, and all their friends. that we could see the full life that Johnny Cash led,” she said. “With all the fame and the glory and the options that he had, the mistakes that he made, that the best choice of all is your friendship with God.”

The film’s release comes as Arkansas is nearing completion of a project that began in 2019 to replace the state’s two statues in the U.S. Capitol with Cash and civil rights activist Daisy Bates. Each state has two statues on display. Gov. Asa Hutchinson pushed for the legislature to select Cash and Bates.

Susan Hutchinson said she and her husband have long respected Cash and Bates for their accomplishments. She also spoke about her first time seeing Cash’s boyhood home, which was restored a decade ago by Arkansas State University.

“Asa took me over to Dyess before he was governor, and you go down that highway and suddenly it just stops, and it’s just a pile of dirt and rocks and the only way to get back out is to turn around and go back,” Hutchinson said. “So it is really impactful where you are, that this is where you’ve got to make it. There’s no other place to make it in life than right here on this cotton farm and this family.”

Ruth Hawkins, who is now retired, oversaw the restoration of the Cash home when she was head of ASU’s Arkansas Heritage Sites program. A fundraising campaign to preserve what had long been a dilapidated farmhouse began with a 2011 concert that has evolved into the annual Johnny Cash Heritage Festival. Most of the work restoring the home was completed in 2012 and it has since opened as a museum, drawing visitors from around the world to see the place immortalized by Cash’s lyrics.

Hawkins, who extensively researched Cash’s background during the restoration of the home, said she enjoyed the new documentary.

“It was extremely moving. The pacing in it, I thought, was wonderful, you know, it just moved, it was great. Of course, I cried a few times.”

She also feels this will improve the public’s understanding of Cash.

“This documentary showed a lot of people a whole new side of him,” Hawkins said. “People know that he went through his drug abuse period and then that he got clean and had a comeback; they know those kinds of things about him, but his real faith has never really come through in a lot of the things that you see about him. I think that it did in this.”

That’s just what Smallbone said he was hoping for in his film.

“I think this is a big film that’s going to fill in the gaps of that period of time in Johnny's life. Obviously, he wrote books and a lot of that information is already out there, but to tell it in a film setting is really important,” Smallbone said.

“Ultimately, I think we’re continuing the legacy of what Johnny wanted right at the end. You look at even the Rick Ruben recordings, it was full of gospel music, and that was a pivotal part of the story that he wanted to tell and the message that he wanted to get out. And so we’re continuing that part of his legacy.”

The film is showing in theaters through Wednesday. Locations and times can be found at this link.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
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