I have a very special announcement coming tomorrow, so this is day four of my five days of Johnny Cash blog in which I will post a significant song that contributed to my understanding, love and appreciation for Johnny Cash the artist, musician and man. I will blog about one more song tomorrow morning before a special reveal at 3:00 Hawaiian time.
Beyond Mr. Cash’s well crafted country music standards and his unique personal interpretations of popular songs, above all Johnny Cash was a lover and perpetuator of authentic southern gospel music. He recounts lovingly and in detail in his autobiography about his upbringing in Arkansas where he was surrounded by gospel music, either by his mother, in church or on the radio.
Throughout his recording career he expressed his love and affinity for gospel music. One of my favorite Johnny Cash stories is of him very early on going into Sun Studio to audition for Sam Phillips and playing him gospel songs. After a few valiant attempts Sam Phillips finally stops Cash and tells him that no one is buying gospel records and asks him if he had anything else. This is when Johnny Cash played “Hey Porter” for Phillips, which ended up being his first number one hit.
What was interesting is that throughout Cash’s recording career he constantly struggled with his desire to play gospel music and his need for hits. After leaving Sun Records and during his early years with Columbia, he was given free artistic reign to record what he wanted and he often chose songs with a religious bent rather than songs that had potential to be pop hits. And later during Cash’s rediscovery of his Christian faith, these sentiments became even stronger, to the point in which he was crafting fully realized thematic albums, soundtracks and even movies about his devotion for Jesus and the Gospel.
I always found this to be the most fascinating parts of Johnny Cash the man. While I always loved his country standards such as “Ring of Fire”, “Guess Things Happen That Way” and “Walk the Line”, it was his spiritual music that really moved me at a deeper level. I could connect to his deep spiritual faith and his commitment to a power greater than himself.
So I do have to admit I’m gonna cheat here and add one more song of significance.
This was one of the last songs that Johnny Cash wrote and I think one his most poignant. While not a traditional gospel spiritual in the vein of the first song from the Carter Family, it exists at the same level with the same message. That personal redemption is possible through a spiritual path to righteousness. Yet this remained a struggle of his up tot he end as he expresses in the song when he says, “Will you partake of that last offered cup / Or disappear into the potter’s ground?”. So while he may have chose Jesus and he may have died believing that is the only way, I hold firmly to the belief that just an acceptance of a power greater than oneself is necessary.
Religious discussion aside, I feel the music is beautiful, powerful and it holds deep personal meaning for me. As I began to see Johnny Cash as more than just the Man In Black, but as an individual on his journey on earth to be more connected to the spiritual energies of existence I began to listen more closely to his gospel music. And then in turn I began my own journey. And for that I am grateful.