Back in the late 1950’s, Johnny Cash left Sun Records for Columbia. The reason? Columbia offered him the freedom to record Christian-themed music. That was his primary motivation why he sought a music career in the first place.
But what would draw him to such material? Long before he fell into substance abuse that led to an attempted suicide, Cash had some influence from his brother Jack. In his autobiography, he recounted the tragic death story of his older brother from a wood saw. He was only 15.
The two boys were close and Johnny looked up to Jack as his first “preacher.” His memories then left a strong impression on Johnny.
So here is a compilation of all his gospel recordings throughout his lifetime. As he made it his choice to record gospel, it would be a delight to learn his perspective on faith.
Any chap raised in a traditional church could not resist the charm of hymns. They’re indispensable to any gospel album recordings.
Hence, Cash took 13 of these old hymns and gave it a countrified spin.
Song List: “It Was Jesus” / “I Saw a Man” / “Are All the Children In” / “The Old Account” / “Lead Me Gently Home” / “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” /”Snow in His Hair” / “Lead Me Father” / “I Call Him” / “These Things Shall Pass” / “He’ll Be a Friend” /”GodWill” / “It Was Jesus“
What’s in It?
Reading the song titles alone can give us a peek into Cash’s psyche. And if you listen to them, the majority is heavy in sentimentality. It gives a picture of a man who’s in deep loneliness and looking for hope. Nevertheless, the songs where he seeks for a Divine help provide balance.
Like Cash, we all have demons endlessly haunting us. Even heroes from the Bible times weren’t spared from the plague of anxiety. This, despite the knowledge that God’s with them and if there’s any gain from it, we self-soothe by seeing our down times as instrumental in curbing our desires to be independent of our Creator.
That said, the album in its entirety is one for keeps. Bet even irreligious fans of Cash will find it hard to dislike this album.
Sampler: It Was Jesus
Hymns from the Heart (June 1962)
Unlike Hymns by Johnny Cash which featured four originals, this second album is comprised mostly of church songs except for I Got Shoes.
Song list: “He’ll Understand and Say Well Done”/ “God Must Have My Fortune Laid Away” /“When I’ve Learned Enough to Die”/“I Got Shoes” / “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” / “If We Never Meet Again” / “When I Take My Vacation in Heaven” / “When He Reached Down His Hand for Me” / “Taller Than Trees”/ “I Won’t Have to Cross Jordan Alone” / “My God Is Real (Yes, God Is Real)” / “These Hands”
What’s in It?
Compared with ancient hymns borrowed from England, “Hymns from the Heart” took the lighter road. Here, Cash’s Southern Gospel roots become evident.
While English hymns are heavily intellectual with some complicated phrasings, Southern Gospel opts for descriptions that all lay people may easily grasp. Though “death” is still one of its subjects, the treatment is not of blind hope but more on the resilience of a man’s spirit.
Now to highlight the sole original song, “I Got Shoes,” the upbeat melody goes well with Cash’s perky choice of lyrics. It’s like a cream topping you wouldn’t say no to even after having your fill of meaty, religious songs.
Faith always leads to hope and comfort. We may have been running wild for years, but once the reality of sufferings sets in, you’re given no choice but to be humbled. Though it brings discomfort for some time, we won’t get stuck there. Tenderly, God will lift our spirits and we’ll begin to live again.
For gospel fans, you’ll take comfort from this album. Here, you’ll hear a man sincerely singing the hope that could only be found through trusting God.
Sampler: These Hands
The Holy Land (January 1969)
Song List: “Prologue” / “Land of Israel” / “Mother’s Love” / “This Is Nazareth”/ “Nazarene” /”Town of Cana” / “He Turned the Water into Wine” / “My Wife June at the Sea of Galilee”/ “Beautiful Words” / “Our Guide Jacob at Mount Tabor” / “The Ten Commandments” / “Daddy Sang Bass” / “At the Wailing Wall” / “Come to the Wailing Wall” / “In Bethlehem” / “In Garden of Gethsemane” / “The Fourth Man” /”On the Via Dolorosa” / “Church of the Holy Sepulcher”/ “At Calvary” / “God is Not Dead”
An album inspired by Johnny Cash’s visit to Israel in 1968. Its uniqueness is to be credited to the mixture of songs and travelogues. Following the success of “At Folsom Prison,” Cash once again gave a refreshing concept album to his fans.
What’s In It?
You better save yourself from disappointment by not expecting the album to be about Christ’s homeland. “The Holy Land,” however, is still a fitting name. Perhaps remembering the life story of Jesus in the Bible, Cash sees Israel as the stage where the most important historical events happened. The place is set-apart (holy) among other places as it is where God became a man and lived among us.
Cash had the mind of a musical theologian here. Seeping with knowledge from his reading of the Bible, the song arrangement is meant to be a little trick for people to know what’s in the Holy Book. (Because many don’t really read their Bibles. Or if they do, they don’t bother to understand what they’re reading.)
Nine songs recount the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Three sends you back to the time of Old Testament, and the rest are invitational to anyone who might want what Cash has – faith in Christ.
The travelogue part is more of a bonus as the then newlyweds, Johnny and June, shared some of their travel experiences.
This is Johnny Cash taking a bold step for evangelism through his songs. No longer does he wallow in self-pity because of his troubles, but he’s beginning to be outward-focused. He calls people to a simple religion – the love of God to mankind and our response to him.
“It isn’t God, but man that’s dead when love is locked outside.”
-quoted from Cash’s “God is Not Dead”
In case we did not know, the conception of this album marks the beginning of Cash changing his life for the better. This was the season when he’s finally recovering from his drug addiction.
Sampler: God is Not Dead
The Gospel Road (April 1973)
It has four sides and runs for more than an hour with its 76 songs. As its name implies, the album is a full track narration of Jesus’ life. (And yes, this is his longest album.) But here’s the catch, around this time, Johnny Cash and Billy Graham became friends.
What’s In It?
As Graham was one of America’s greatest evangelists, it wasn’t surprising if his fiery preaching ignited Cash’s passion to re-tell the story that has never lost its charm. Naturally, Billy Graham’s religious organization used the film in their evangelism.
This, perhaps, is Cash’s biggest project and the most personal. Scenes were shot on several locations in Israel. It may have been a commercial success had Johnny Cash knew a seasoned channel partner.
This is a long leap of faith for Cash. Out of zeal, he had hoped to reach a wider audience. He wanted people to hear about his Lord through the entertainment platform he’s been given.
Though “salvation” is free, the “gospel” is costly.
To Cash, his evangelistic direction cost him his relationship with his manager Saul Holiff. Holiff, understandably, manages Cash’s career for profit and not charity. Hence, Holiff retired and relocated to Canada. So, from a secular perspective, the loss of Cash’s long-time manager would mean the disintegration of his Hollywood career.
What about us professing Christians? What has the “gospel” cost us?
Back to the Cash couple, from paid performers, they offered their voices for a higher purpose. Singing on stage was no longer a performance, but a heartfelt service to their Savior.
As the whole album is heavy with bible descriptions, one light-readers might find it exhausting. So for Cash’s full-pledged fans, listening in parts or per side would be helpful. Not only that you would not tire easily, but you’d also have time to digest the songs’ messages. This way, you can enjoy the progression of the narrative as you listen to the next set with anticipation.
Johnny Cash-Sings Precious Memories (January 1975)
Song List: “Precious Memories” / “Rock of Ages” / “The Old Rugged Cross” / “Softly and Tenderly” / “In the Sweet By and By” / “Just as I Am” / “Farther Along” / “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” / “Amazing Grace”/ “At the Cross”/ “Have Thine Own Way, Lord”
From the hymns he had heard in his growing years to a film or soundtrack about the gospel narratives, here is Johnny Cash’s self-produced gospel album.
As his faith deepened in the 70’s, Cash’s love for gospel music heightened that he started writing his own songs for future recordings. Still, he could not replicate the dense wordings English hymns were known for. He instead wrote gospel songs with a catchy tune and simple lyrics. (Spoiler, they’re cheesy.)
What’s in It?
Again, this album was produced by Cash. Hence, it would not come as a surprise if he handpicked all of the songs.
These eleven hymns were introduced by the revivalist movements in the 19th century. The church/es Cash may have been exposed to were apparently under that influence.
Our Take-Away 1
Precious Memories (1925)– Popular then and still is today, the basic message points us to the value of family and the warmth of a loving home. At the end of the day, they’re our biggest supporters.
Rock of Ages (18th Century)– a hymn of salvation, “Rock of Ages” is just one among the many titles attributed to Jesus.
The Old Rugged Cross (1912)– Like Jesus, Christians must bear their own crosses with patience. More so, we must emulate his attitude. Do not despise the Cross and your cross. Someday, we’ll have a crown in exchange and the finite days we have today were nothing compared to the glorious days we’ll be having in eternity.
Softly and Tenderly (19th Century) – By tradition, this hymn is sung in acapella. Mellow musical accompaniment may work too as long as it won’t overpower the soft message of Jesus’ comfort. Best to listen to when you’re feeling downtrodden.
In the Sweet By and By (19th Century) – Death does not permanently sever us from our loved ones. Soon, we’ll see the grandest reunion! The whole of God’s family will be there.
Our Take-Away 2
Just as I Am (1835) – This has become a standard “altar call” wherein the preacher invites people to come forward either to confess their sins before the Lord or to re-commit themselves to his service. Reportedly, Billy Graham always employs “altar calls” every after he finishes his preaching.
Farther Along – How far can our faith and love for God go?
When the Roll is Called Up Yonder (19th Century)-Will our names be found written in the Book of Life? Better that we do not miss Jesus now or it would be too late.
Amazing Grace – One of the greatest hymns ever written.
At the Cross– another song about salvation expressing the power of Christ’s cross
Have Thine Own Way (1902) – very sentimental and will always be a reminder that the best way is still “God’s way”
Each still holds power that whenever it’s sung today, testimonies of unchurched people turning to Christ crop up.
Sampler: “Have Thine Own Way”
My Mother’s Hymn Book (April 6, 2004)
Song List: “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” /”I Shall Not Be Moved” /”I Am a Pilgrim” / “Do Lord” /”When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder” / “If We Never Meet Again This Side of Heaven” / “I’ll Fly Away”/ “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies”/ “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” / “When He Reached Down His Hand for Me” / “In the Sweet By-
and-By” / “I’m Bound for the Promised Land” /”In the Garden”/ “Softly and Tenderly” / “Just as I Am”
What’s in It?
Delightful in its simplicity! We only hear Cash’s voice with only an acoustic guitar as musical accompaniment.
He started with “hymns” and also ended with “hymns.” This time though, he highlighted the songs that his mother taught him in childhood.
Approaching the close of his earthly years, Cash honors the woman who gave birth to him.
Sampler: “Just as I am”
Other Gospel Albums
A Believer Sings the Truth (December 1979) – Another lengthy gospel track featuring several guests and Johnny Cash’s family. There’s no doubt how deeply immersed he is in faith with this one.
Believe in Him (1986)- A rare set that has not been out in the open for a while. Comprised of 10 songs, the album features a combination of messages: invitation to come to Jesus, a warning from straying, and the endurance of faith.
Return to the Promised Land (1992, 2000)– one of his last Christian-themed albums along with the “My Mother’s Hymns.”
Though all of his other albums were reverent and intimate, this one holds a special in Johnny’s heart. Here you’ll hear his mother’s voice on tape singing, playing the piano, reading poetry, and recounting her memories of the boy Johnny Cash back in Arkansas.
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