Johnny Cash and the Gospel


Johnny Cash did gospel music right. If you observe the whole corpus of his contributions to the gospel side of country music, he manages to capture and hold together the sentimental and the prophetic. That is remarkably rare.

I have selected eight performances, not in any particular order. The first is from San Quentin State Prison and the last is a performance with his mom on The Johnny Cash Show. In between, there are a couple Kris Kristofferson songs. There is a harrowing song about drug addiction. There is a performance at a Billy Graham Crusade. There is so much good stuff here.


“He Turned the Water Into Wine” (San Quentin State Prison, February 24, 1969)


“The Junkie’s Prayer” (January 6, 1971)


“Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” (Grand Ole Opry, August 20, 1962)

There is also another rendition (in color) that is well worth watching.


“They Killed Him” (December 1984)

This was written by Kris Kristofferson, who appears at the beginning of the video. The first verse is about Gandhi, the second is about Martin Luther King Jr’s “dream of beauty that they’ll never burn away,” and the final verse is about Jesus Christ.


“Why Me, Lord?”

This is another Kris Kristofferson song. You’ll also want to see both of them talking about another of Kris’ songs, “To Beat the Devil.”


“It Was Jesus” (Town Hall Party 1958)


“One of These Days I’m Gonna Sit Down And Talk To Paul” (Billy Graham Crusade, Tallahassee, FL, 1986)


“The Unclouded Day” (The Johnny Cash Show, May 13, 1970)

Johnny Cash performs, with his mom on the piano, the first song that he ever sang in public. This is such a beautiful moment.

There is also a DVD of a 1973 documentary / personal journey of Johnny Cash in the Holy Land: The Gospel Road.

The Gospel Road



  1. You’re right that Cash knew how to do prophetic/apocalyptic. I’m a big fan of the The Man Comes Around. Maybe his best original song?

    Also his version of God’s Gonna Cut You Down. Or for something more hopeful, Ain’t No Grave.

    As you can probably tell I’m more familiar with the American series than his earlier work, besides the prison concerts anyway.

    • Yes, I considered adding some of the American sessions, especially the ones you name, but I already had eight videos and figured that was enough for now. That’s encouraging to see “The Man Comes Around” has over 17m views, and it’s just the audio. The American series was an incredible way to close Cash’s career. It put him on a whole other level in comparison to all of his peers.

  2. I like the Movie DVD ” WALK THE LINE” with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. The Song “Folsom Prison Blues” sold more records than any other song in the World, including any of the Beatles’ Songs are anyones elses.

    • Huh, I didn’t know that about “Folsom Prison Blues.” Walk the Line is indeed a great movie, among my favorite country-themed films, like Tender Mercies and Crazy Heart.

      • There’s a fun exhibit at the Cash Museum in Nashville about his own movie career, with lots of clips! As you can imagine, a lot of B-movies. My favorite is a western where he’s the sheriff and Andy Griffith is the villain. 🙂

      • Oh nice. I hope to visit Nashville soon next year, and I was planning — of course — on visiting the Cash Museum.

      • You’re at least twice the country fan I am, so you’ll have a blast. Cafe Marche is a great restaurant.

  3. Great mix. I’ve read his 1997, autobiography, ‘Cash’ and Steve Turner’s, A Man Called Cash. I recommend both. Some honourable mentions: ‘General Lee’ (granted not a Gospel tune, but still cool – Dukes, Soundtrack) & ‘You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ’ (due with Billy Joe Shaver).

    • I haven’t read those books. I also want to read Merle Haggard’s autobiography. I love both of those songs — I have “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” in the four-disc The Legend set, which is a superb collection by the way.

      I’ll have to see if/where WordPress gives me the Twitter share option. Since I don’t have Twitter — and don’t plan to do so anytime soon — it didn’t even cross my mind.

  4. Thanks for the post. Last post Barth, this one Cash. Quite a span!

    With a lot of pop music it seems all the male vocals are high tenor. And they all wind up sounding like girlie boys. Not so Mr. Cash.

    • Yes, in fact, it has become an industry “test” for a male vocalist whether he belongs in the pop or country format. If he has a deep, booming voice, then he’s country — see Chris Young, Kip Moore, Randy Houser, Blake Shelton, et al. — even if the music is more pop than true country. Rascal Flatts’ lead singer, however, is a notable exception, since he’s got one of the highest tenors anywhere.

      • I will forever associate Rascal Flatts with a bad date I went on once…

        Me: “So what kind of music do you like?”
        Her: “I’ve been getting into classic rock lately. You know, .like Rascal Flatts.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s