Evangelist William Franklin “Billy” Graham, a friend and inspiration to many country music stars, died Wednesday (Feb. 21) at his home in Montreat, N.C. at the age of 99.
In 1947, Graham conducted the first of what would become a series of more than 400 “crusades” that took him to virtually every country in the world, including such unlikely and seemingly hostile locales as Russia and North Korea.
These events, which were designed to convert people to Graham’s conservative vision of Christianity, were heavily dependent on music, and they found a particularly congenial audience within the white, working-class country music community.
Grand Ole Opry stars George Hamilton IV, Charlie Daniels and Jan Howard are among the many entertainers of all stripes who performed for Graham’s audiences.
The first country artist to associate himself with Graham was the singer and songwriter Stuart Hamblen. The son of an itinerant minister himself, Hamblen was converted at one of the early Graham crusades. That occasion led him to write and record, in addition to country ballads, such gospel classics as “This Ole House” and “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do).”
Graham’s most illustrious country fan — and a frequent guest on his crusades — was Johnny Cash. Joined by a common interest in the Bible as a spiritual guide, the two men became friends, as well as mutual admirers. Graham even appeared on Cash’s TV show in 1971, reciting verses from the Bible while Cash provided the musical framework.
Following Cash’s death in 2003, Graham wrote:
“Johnny Cash was not only a legend but a close personal friend. Johnny was a good man who also struggled with many challenges in his life. Johnny was a deeply religious man. He and June [Carter Cash] came to a number of our Crusades over a period of many years. Ruth [Graham’s wife, who died in 2007] and I took a number of personal vacations with them at their home in Jamaica and in other places. They both were like a brother and sister to Ruth and me.”
Ricky Skaggs was one of the invited celebrities (along with Sarah Palin, Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch) who paid tribute to the evangelist at his 95th birthday party in Asheville.
Graham’s own celebrity earned him the friendship of most American presidents from Harry Truman onward — but not with John F. Kennedy, against whom he opened campaigned, opposing him because he was Catholic.
In spite of his conservative background, Graham spoke out against racial segregation in America and against its counterpart — apartheid — in South Africa. He and Martin Luther King Jr. became friends, and he corresponded with Nelson Mandela while Mandela was still in prison.