Johnny Cash’s oldest grandson, Thomas Gabriel, sings his way out of the darkness

Thomas Gabriel sober

After years of work on himself and his sobriety, Thomas Gabriel has finally found the peace that eluded him for the way things ended with his grandfather, the late Johnny Cash.

The Ties That Bind UsAs a solo artist, Gabriel’s voice is a dead ringer for the Man in Black, and he peppers his set of searing and haunting original songs with ones made famous by his granddad. It is, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, a way to show contrition to the father figure who never gave up on him while he lived.

“There was never any judgment, he was never disrespectful and he never looked down on me,” Gabriel said. “He was stern, honest, and straight to the point, even when I did him wrong right before he died. I stole from him, and once again because I was trying to kill that guilt, I stayed clear and started drinking more, but he finally called me into his office and said, ‘I want to talk to you. Do you know anything about some of my stuff going missing?’ And I said, ‘Yes sir I do. It was me, and I’m extremely sorry and beg your forgiveness.’ He said, ‘I already forgave you, because I knew it was you. You must have needed it more than I did.’

“He said, ‘You know that’s wrong and that you’re doing yourself more harm than anyone.’ I hugged him, and he forgave me, but I left there feeling just as bad, but at least it was off my chest. But the night before he died, he called me and asked me to come over to the hospital, because he needed to talk to me. I told him I would be there in about an hour, but I was dopesick, so I told myself I was going to lay down a little longer, but then I never woke up. About 5 that morning, my mother called me and told me he was gone.”

Cash never saw his grandson go to prison, but he never got to see him get sober, either. When Gabriel sings, however, it’s hard not to imagine that the family patriarch’s ghost is somewhere in the shadows by the side of the stage, smiling in approval at the way Gabriel has turned his life around.

“Right now, I’m in a good spot with it,” Gabriel said. “He wanted me to get myself together and start my music back up, and I think he would be proud.”

A chip off the old block

Thomas Gabriel sober

Thomas Gabriel (born Thomas Gabriel Coggins) with his grandfather, Johnny Cash, in 1977.

Addiction and alcoholism are no stranger to Gabriel’s bloodline, and his grandfather’s battles with bottles of pills and booze are well-documented. But life as Johnny Cash’s oldest grandson — his mother, Kathy, was the second child born to Johnny and his first wife, Vivian Liberto — wasn’t the party of Cash’s early years. By the time Gabriel came along, the patriarch had sobered up for the first time and did his best to shepherd a blended family.

Fame, however, did a funny thing to the family’s dynamics.

“Growing up on the bus, going from town to town and seeing different faces every night was like living in a fishbowl,” Gabriel said. “It was strange. I remember one time we were at the circus — me, my grandfather and two of my cousins — and there was a line around the circus tent of all these people waiting to get Johnny Cash’s autograph. I was sitting next to him and just looking at these people and thinking, ‘How stupid! Why would you want to talk to him when there are these acrobats and monkeys right here in the circus?’

“But the older you get and the more you start seeing on TV, you start to realize that this huge production is going around the country and to other countries. You start to see that the focus is on not just him as a person, but what his talents were and what he shared with others. And when I reached puberty and realized that there were girls out there, and that their parents didn’t mind their daughters going to the (tour) bus, that changed everything!

“It was a fun life, but it was a very unstable life, and at times it was very lonely,” he added. “But I was very grateful.”

Fame wasn’t the only thing that made his childhood different than most. In the first grade, some college boys who lived next door were playing a drinking game, and after a few minutes of observation, Gabriel boasted that he could play as well.

“I lied and told them, ‘I like beer,’ so they gave me one, and I chugged it and threw it down,” he said. “I did that three or four times, and I felt this perfect bliss. It was all I wanted after that, and I looked for every single opportunity to get it, literally. All of my elementary school days involved chemicals. I was taking vodka to school in the sixth grade, and every chance I got after that, I had to have it.”

And when he learned about the nature of addiction as a disease, something his grandfather explained before Cash headed off to one of his drug and alcohol rehab stays, Gabriel knew in his heart of hearts that he was cut from the same cloth.

“When he explained it to us, it scared me to death,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I have this disease!’ Without a shadow of a doubt, I knew right then and there that I was an alcoholic and addict.”

Consumed by a ceaseless hunger

Thomas Gabriel soberBy the time he was 13, Gabriel was focused on two hobbies: motocross and drinking. He used to combine rum and water and sip on the mixture all day while he rode his bike around a track behind the family home, but one afternoon his mother came home early. She’d had a minor accident, and his younger brother’s lip had been split open. Kathy got out and handed Gabriel his sibling, and he collapsed to the ground because he was so drunk.

“I had been caught a few times before, but they wrote it off as experimenting. That day was different,” he said. “I was totally destroyed. So my mom did what she normally did, which was call my grandfather. He had me come to his house, and we had a long talk for two days. He said to me, ‘I knew you had dabbled, but I want to know how bad it is.’ And I just told him: ‘I do this every day.’”

That was going to stop, Cash declared. He started taking his grandson to 12 Step meetings, and he insisted that the boy start an exercise regimen to get in shape.

“He said, ‘You’re going to start going to a gym and working out every day and getting in shape, because when you do that, you won’t want to mess up. You’ll want to keep yourself healthy,’” Gabriel said.

But like most addicts and alcoholics, Gabriel didn’t know the meaning of the word moderation. He became obsessed with weightlifting and within a few years was using steroids, which he started to combine with other drugs and alcohol until life, he added, became “a bigger ball of mess.”

While he dabbled in music as a younger man, his deep baritone impressing all who heard him sing, Gabriel was urged by his grandfather to find another line of work. He chose law enforcement and became a police officer, managing to stay on the force for eight years, but behind the blue exterior, everything was slowly coming apart, he said.

“I worked 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., and I would do that on Adderall, then get off work and go do whatever I wanted to all day — drinking or whatever — then turn right back around and go to work, and I would do this for two, three, four days at a time,” he said. “My behavior got really strange. I was married at the time, but I cared about nothing. I was so self-centered, and I did whatever I wanted to do. I legitimately thought I had the right to do that.”

Divorce hastened his trip down the spiral, and eventually he was arrested. Needless to say, his career in law enforcement was done, but his grandfather was still there.

“When I got out, he said, ‘I want you to work for me. I want you to stay close to me, because I want to keep an eye on you,’” Gabriel said. “I tried to tell him I was fine, but he said, ‘No, you’re not.’”

The end of the road

Thomas Gabriel soberDespite his grandfather’s entreaties, Gabriel was hellbent on his own destruction. A parole violation sent him to prison, and when he got out, he continued to struggle. Guilt, shame, remorse and self-loathing made for a toxic combination that only alcohol and drugs seemed to touch. He couldn’t keep a job, slept in the woods and borrowed money for hotel rooms when he needed a shower and a bed. Eventually, he reached a point where the sweet oblivion of death seemed preferable to such an existence.

“I got two gallons of vodka, some meth and some coke, and I had an old Kawasaki Ninja,” he said. “I got a handicapped room at this hotel, and I pulled the bike in the room so nobody could find me. I was determined that the only way I was coming out of that room was on a gurney.”

He proceeded to drink his way toward the completion of that plan when the room phone rang. It was his mother.

“That blew me away, because I didn’t think anybody knew where I was at,” he said. “She said, ‘This man wants to talk to you,’ but all I said was, ‘No thanks,’ and I hung up on her. Everybody knew I was in bad shape, and being Johnny Cash’s grandson, I was used to being hit up because they thought I would sell them something of his cheap, and that’s what I assumed it was about. But I had nothing else. I had lost everything.”

The more he drank, the more the sorrow within seemed to grow bigger. At one point, he remembers hitting his knees and begging God to end it all by any means necessary.

“I said, ‘I don’t care what it takes, even if that means killing me — just do not let tomorrow come and it be the same thing,’” he said.

An hour later, Kathy called again. Again, he told her he was busy and hung up. When the phone rang a third time, it wasn’t his mom, but a stranger’s voice.

“The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘You’re going to die,’ and all I could think was, ‘Now you’ve got my attention!’” Gabriel said. “He asked me what happened, and I told him my story, and then he asked, ‘What do you really want to do with your life?’ I told him I wanted to get back to my music. That’s all I had ever wanted to do, and in prison, I wrote all kinds of music.

“He said, ‘How about we meet tomorrow and talk?’ I told him, ‘I’ll be honest with you. I’m not planning on there being a tomorrow,’ but he said, ‘If you will just hold on and meet me tomorrow, then we’ll talk and come up with some sort of plan.’”

The man comes around

Thomas Gabriel soberThe next day, Gabriel walked across the street from a Motel 6 in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, to a Japanese restaurant, where the stranger on the other end of the phone was wearing pajama bottoms, house shoes and a freshly pressed Oxford button-up. Brian Oxley had recently purchased Johnny Cash's farm in Bon Aqua, Tennessee, and had taken an interest in Gabriel.

“He’s the executive producer of a lot of things, and he started showing me all of these videos,” Gabriel said. “He said, ‘So you’re interested in music. Here’s what I want you to do. Go to rehab, and then we’ll talk about music, and I’ll help you as best as I can.’”

Something about Oxley convinced Gabriel that he was on the up-and-up, and so reluctantly, he agreed to go to a residential addiction treatment center. It was nothing new; by his count, Gabriel has been to drug and alcohol rehab 23 times over the course of his life, so many that it had become a part of his routine.

“It wasn’t a matter of, ‘I’m really going to try this hard.’ It was a matter of, ‘This is what you do. You go get cleaned up and hope it lasts, or you get two or three months and go back to your old life,’” Gabriel said. “Years before, I’d had a counselor who looked at me and said, ‘Why are you still doing this? Why do you keep coming to visit us? You know this stuff. You don’t need a refresher course, because you could teach every damn class we’re going to give you.’

“I said, ‘Yeah,’ and then he said, ‘But what you haven’t done is fix what’s inside you.’ I had been told that before, but I’d never been told like that. And so this time around, I started doing that. I got rid of all my guilt, and I got rid of all the problems.”

Reluctantly, at first: Although he was encouraged by Oxley’s offer for assistance, he half-assed his way through treatment, and when Oxley came to see him at the end of 30 days, he had another suggestion that Gabriel didn’t like too much.

“He said, ‘I want you to go to another place after this, a long-term facility for three months,’” Gabriel said. “He pointed out to me, ‘What other options do you have?’ So I did it, even though I didn’t like it, and then he said he wanted me to stay another three months. Now I was upset, but I said, ‘Fine, I’ll do it.’

“And by the time that three months was done, I was working there, doing counseling and doing really well. And after a year goes by, I was still working there, and he calls me up one day and says, ‘Come by the house. We have something to talk about.’ When I got there, he said, ‘Are you ready?’”

One day at a time

Thomas Gabriel soberBy that point, he was more than ready. He had several tunes he'd penned in prison, and Oxley even had one ready for him: “,” a harrowing tale of an ex-con whose so used to life behind bars that freedom is uncomfortable, an apt analogy for Gabriel’s early days of sobriety. In fact, once it did take hold, he shed his old skin like a reptile and found himself bonding with guys who could pass for his addicted twin.

“I was a guy who was an addict and hated to be around addicts,” he said with a chuckle. “My fourth or fifth month in rehab, I got to see the same people come and go, and I got to see these people that just didn’t give a damn or put forth any effort, and I couldn’t stand them, because they reminded me of me. And that’s when I said, ‘You know, maybe I can help some people. Maybe I can quit this revolving door of madness that these addicts chase constantly.’”

It was the first time in his life, he said, that he truly got to know other addicts and alcoholics on a personal and spiritual level. He came to realized that he had hated them because he hated himself, but he also found his skills as a liar and a con artist were useful tools in cutting through their attempts at manipulation. He was tough but fair, and his groups gave him more than he shared in return.

Music, however, was the brass ring. He started work on “Long Way Home,” his 2018 debut, and began repairing relationships with his sons. He met some guys who wanted to play music with him, and his career began to gain traction, as both the carrier of the Johnny Cash torch but also as a bold new voice. If Johnny filled his songs with weariness and longing, Gabriel’s tunes hum with the sort of menacing vibe a man gives off when his back’s against the wall.

“When I get on stage, everybody keeps asking me, ‘Why don't you smile more? Why don’t you talk more?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t smile a lot, I don’t dance and I don’t do this or that,’” he said. “When I get up there, I channel (his grandfather), I channel me, and I channel the Holy Spirit. I channel every single aspect of what each song means to me — the first time I ever heard it, what it makes me feel like, what I think it made him feel like.”

In those moments, his grandfather’s spirit whispers. While Johnny Cash died in 2003, he’s never far from Gabriel’s thoughts, and it seems he makes his presence known in some of the most serendipitous ways. Like the connection Cash had to author Og Mandino, for example.

One of the most influential books Gabriel has ever read was “The Greatest Miracle in the World,” specifically the chapter “The God Memorandum.” It’s a work designed to bring happiness and inner peace, and through that book, Gabriel learned to stop hating himself and start appreciating the life he had been given. In fact, he read it for 400 days straight and used it in some of the classes he counseled.

“’The God Memorandum’ absolutely changed the way I see the world in every shape, form or fashion,” he said. “But then the first time I went to see my grandpa’s old farm after Brian bought it, I walked in, and I hadn’t seen the place in forever, but I looked over at his desk, and I see a framed letter from my grandpa to Og Mandino talking about how that book had changed his life.

“I got absolute chills when I saw it. I stopped in my tracks and stared at it, because it just floored me. I went 40 years walking around this life not noticing a damn thing, and God would constantly try to give me messages all the time. I couldn’t see them or hear them, until one day it dawned on me that every day, God speaks to me through other people.”

'It's all about the connection'

Thomas Gabriel soberAnd so, at 46 years old, Thomas Gabriel has found a life of meaning. He’s found a path of sobriety that works for him, and he’s been clean and (relatively, save for a couple of slips) sober for three years. He doesn’t do meetings, but he doesn’t discard their path to sobriety that works for others. His program involves keeping his mind, body, spirit and soul active, and while his music career has shortened the amount of available time he has to speak to rehabs and groups as he once did, he still seeks opportunities to help others.

“My entire existence has changed drastically, to the point I never imagined,” he said. “I’m extremely busy, but I still have time for my two sons. I take them on the road with me when I can, and right now, we’re working on album No. 2, and we’re getting ready to go to Europe and Ireland. We just came off a three-month tour where we did 64 shows.”

And it never fails: Among the crowds who hear his story, both the one he speaks and the ones he sings, are those who need to. They’re somewhere along the trail he traveled for so long, and in his voice and in his music, they hear the hope of a better way.

“I love that, because it makes it to where all of my experiences, all of my days of personal hell, were not in vain,” he said. “When we get done, I always get off stage and go talk to everybody I can, because I spent 10 years inside of a bathroom by myself, pretty much. Now, when I meet people, it’s all about the connection.”