The Gospel According to Johnny Cash

Cash backstage in an undated photo.

Cash backstage in an undated photo.

Songs of salvation have been around as long as people have needed saving, and judging from the musical history of the nation, nowhere have people needed saving more than in this big ole country of ours. Not long after the first Europeans arrived, they were teaching American Indians Old World Christian songs about how Jesus Christ could save them from their New World sins. These songs, turned into spirituals in Dixie, were one of the only sources of hope that millions of slaves could call on during all sorts of oppression. Especially in the American South, songs about how bad life is (and could be) were often the only readily available source of freedom: freedom from poverty, freedom from depression, freedom from personal demons, and the freedom to slay those demons if it came to that.

So it’s no wonder that a poor country boy from Arkansas who listened to his mama play gospel songs on her guitar would be drawn to singing stories about men in jail, beasts in cages, busting chains, and setting captives free.

Most of us know the popular version of Johnny Cash’s story, as retold, for instance, by a serious Katie Couric on the morning of September 12, 2003. He was the original hard-living country singer… the American outlaw archetype… the Man in Black. We know him best through “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ring of Fire,” and “I Walk the Line,” she said, and he recently received accolades for the prescient music video of his Nine Inch Nails cover “Hurt.” Katie introduced the obligatory 90-second historical montage, interviewed an editor from Rolling Stone, and then moved on to work out the same formula for John Ritter, who had died the same day.

While Cash certainly enjoyed his popular success and, no doubt, took pleasure in his legendary largess, what he added to American culture was much more than an archetypical public persona and a collection of country classics. It is generally agreed that Cash produced the most poignant and emotive work of his career over the past ten years. The oft-lauded American Recording series revealed an aging Cash who, more than ever, needed to retell the age-old story of redemption and freedom.

Sure, Cash sang plenty of songs about white trash and long-legged women and traveling the country from Amarillo to Pocatello. But such country record staples were merely rest stops along the long musical road Cash traveled, beginning at the small town of his personal shortcomings and finally arriving in the metropolis of self-determination. Looking back, Cash always sang about prisons and jails and the things we do to get sent there. And being from the South, he always drew on gospel allusions to punctuate his point. Hell, this reformed drug addict knew more straight-up gospel songs than most small town church ladies. The records he made at the end of his life are far more cathartic and indeed more religious than an entire choir singing “Amazing Grace” on Easter morning.

Some of the most moving songs of the past ten years he wrote himself, but more telling are those he chose to cover. We should have no delusions that most of these songs were not selected with a keen eye toward an emerging demographic of young musical consumers. (How many die-hard fans who listened to Johnny at the magneto shop south of town or at the beauty parlor on Main Street have ever heard of Beck, Sound Garden, Nick Lowe, or Depeche Mode?) Yet Johnny, stripping them of their commercial trappings, transformed the angst-driven songs of these and other artists into testimonies more sincere and heart wrenching than ever a camp meeting did see.

No recent work is more telling than the “Hurt” video. This four-minute montage scrolls through Johnny’s life, from his early popularity to his dark drug binges to his marriage with June Carter, and, finally, the reality of his age and mortality. Only one lyric of the song was changed by Johnny — the original’s “I wear this crown of shit” from Cash’s lips becomes “I wear this crown of thorns,” which proves to be much more than an avoidance of an obscenity. At the end of the piece, scenes from Cash’s 1973 movie The Gospel Road, depicting the crucifixion of Jesus, are edited into the rapid fire closing sequence of footage that includes Johnny spilling crimson wine from a goblet over a table set for a feast, perhaps his Last Supper. The implication is clear: Johnny shares more with Jesus Christ than the initials of their names. The song and video are not simply about an old man getting older. Their true message involves cultivating a close personal relationship with one’s source of salvation and freedom. It is not simply that Johnny needs Jesus to absolve his transgressions; Johnny is Jesus, he who can wash away his own damn sins.

Certainly, Cash would never agree that he and the other J.C. are equals, that they serve the same purpose in the world. My hunch is that Cash would have peacefully deferred to the same Lord who was there at both the beginning and end of his life. But it might do some good to think about Johnny himself as a source of salvation, if not the vine that grows the wine of life, then the vessel from which that wine can be poured.

To emphasize the point, on his final record Cash also covered Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” a song originally written about a man yearning for a woman’s love. For Johnny, though, it seems the song is more of a benediction: “Take second best / Put me to the test / Things on your chest / You need to confess / I will deliver / You know I’m a forgiver / Reach out and touch faith.” From Johnny’s grizzled baritone, this is nothing but an invitation for us all to consider the lessons he has learned in life.

Knowing that these songs would appeal to younger listeners, is it possible that Cash was playing father to a generation, telling us youngsters how to really find freedom in a life that would just as well cage us up? Could it be that J.C. was offering us new songs through which to work out our own particular brands of salvation? In his lyrics and his life, Johnny Cash went to hell and back, broke the rusty chains that bound him to the mercy seat, and was resurrected a new man in an old life with lots of stories to tell a younger generation of believers, whatever it is they believe.

We only have to reach out and touch his faith.

Jon Hooten is a writer and theologian from Denver who has published on religion, language, and popular culture.