NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Johnny Cash, Life and Jesus Christ

Music and Spoken Word Recordings Reflect the Passion of a Modern Day Disciple

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Amid reports that Sotheby’s is in Nashville beginning the task of cataloging the massive Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash estate for a future auction, there’s a new release of a Cash CD, as well as his reading of the New Testament that’s out in a CD box set.

Released March 23 on Columbia/Legacy, Life is interesting primarily because it is comprised of Cash’s choice of songs to present his feelings about life, which was his idea for a sequel and fourth chapter to his Love, God, Murder project.

It’s doubly fascinating because this was the song list and sequencing he finally selected only four days before his death last September. His presentation of songs depicting life includes 17 cuts from previous albums and one previously unreleased song, “I Can’t Go On That Way,” from 1977 (which appears just before the album’s finale, “Lead Me Gently Home”). I’ll leave it to you to interpret the album, for it needs to be experienced on a personal level. I’m discovering from friends and from many e-mailers that everyone’s Johnny Cash memory is becoming a very personal and special retreat.

I’ve also been listening to the new CD reissue of the1989 cassette release of Cash’s reading of the New Testament (on the Nelson Bibles label). He selected the New King James Version, and his recitation amounts to 19 hours on 16 CDs. He was inspired to do the project by his mother, Carrie Rivers Cash, and he said at the time of recording he felt “fear, respect, awe and reverence for the subject matter.” Cash’s faith became a very tangible thing in his advancing years, and it’s echoed here. Listening to Cash’s authoritative voice read the word of God is like a bracing shot of good bourbon at the end of the day. All’s right in the world when Johnny Cash is in charge.

The first time I saw Cash live was at one of the Rev. Billy Graham’s crusades many years ago. Cash was a powerful presence on that stage and was a concrete representation of the very real bond between country music and faith. That bond has remained strong and unbreakable through the years. As Psalm 100 says, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.”

Cash became a devout Christian and made several trips to Israel, to the Holy Land, and ultimately filmed there the 1973 movie The Gospel Road about the life of Jesus, in which he depicted Christ as a real human being. Cash financed the project with his own money and got distribution from Fox. In an interview with George Vecsey for the New York Times, Cash said, “I’m not looking to make money on this. This is my expression of faith.” In pre-dating Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Cash focused on Jesus’ life and impact and resurrection, rather than the circumstances of his death. Although, fascinatingly, The Gospel Road depicted Jesus’ crucifixion — albeit briefly — first in the desert and then inserted into the fleshpots of New York, Las Vegas and Hollywood. “This picture is relevant in New York City also,” Cash told the Times. “At the end we show Christ dying on the cross in the desert. Then we show him dying in the same way with backdrops in New York, Las Vegas and Hollywood. Christ is real to me everywhere.”

Interestingly, The Gospel Road‘s Fox promotion co-coordinator Hal Sherman told the Times in 1973 about the movie, “This film is specialized. It’s good quality, but it has a very strong fundamentalist opinion. In the South, people take the Bible more literally than in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Theater owners resist this kind of picture because traditionally people go to church on Sunday, and they want entertainment from the movies. We’ll schedule it where we get requests.” That’s a protocol Mel Gibson has very much followed. When I was a child and going to the Billy Graham crusades, my father was a minister in Texas, and the Billy Graham advance team always called on preachers in the area to turn out their flocks for the crusade rallies, in exchange for photo ops and other little perks with the Graham team. That’s exactly what Gibson has done with local church leaders — especially in the South and specifically in Nashville — with his Passion. He rolled into Nashville months ago and screened the movie for select country artists and area ministers and prominent laypersons his people knew would be influential in spreading the word. You have to wonder what Johnny Cash would have thought about this movie.

I find it fascinating and very touching that — even as Sotheby’s is picking through the Cash leavings — every time I’ve been out in Hendersonville recently and passed by the Cash compound, there are always tourists who have made their own pilgrimage to stand at the gates there and take pictures. Almost like it’s their own visit to the Holy Land.

I wish Cash had had time to get around to recording the Old Testament, as well as the New. He may well be the closest we’ll ever get to experience the power of a true prophet. I’ve always suspected that the voice of God sounds pretty much like the voice of Johnny Cash. Johnny very much lived his own personal Passion, which, as we all know, means suffering.