If we try to list down and determine the most famous American gospel hymn, it would surely be “The Old Rugged Cross“. To note, it is the most sung and covered hymn across the country. True enough, the song is invariably the best hymn that you will hear not just in a Christian church, but also anywhere you go.
To have a quick review, “The Old Rugged Cross” dates back to 1912 when it was written by evangelist and song-leader George Bennard, a minister ordained by the Methodist Episcopal Church. It was about the struggle that inspired him to pen the song. His experience caused him much suffering and disappointment. However, instead of going astray, he likened his struggles with that of Christ’s suffering and anguish on the cross. This point is the main focus of the hymn. The cross that Bennard depicts is not gold-plated, silver nor any other costly material. Rather, it is a rough normal wood, splintery of its kind, stained with gore.
This subject was so great that it needed to be put into a song. Eventually, in his room in Albion, Michigan, Bennard found his mind and the drive to materialize the song. Just like the song, the composition was rough at first that all he could write is the line “I’ll cherish the old rugged cross“. For days and weeks, he had encountered some difficulty writing the hymn, but he finally came up with the right words and melody to form one of the best gospel songs of all time.
“The Old Rugged Cross”: Singing the Jessi Colter & Johnny Cash Way
The gospel hymn has been covered by many different artists especially country music singers. From the version of male folks such as that of Ernest Tubb in 1952 to Jim Reeves, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, and Eddy Arnold (to name a few), the gospel song was also rendered by female stars like Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, June Carter, Mahalia Jackson, and Anne Murray. Country crooners also have had versions of it. The most notable are Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, Randy Owen (Alabama), Brad Paisley, and Vince Gill.
However, one of the less popular but most notable rendition is the duet of Jessi Colter and Johnny Cash. Cash had already recorded the song with his wife June Carter, but it is his duet with Waylon Jennings’ wife Jessi Colter that is mostly forgotten.
In the version, Colter opens the song in a sweet, mellow melody. Soothing and refreshing, Colter’s voice is like a lullaby. On the other hand, Cash sings the second stanza. His deep yet relaxed voice matches that of Colter’s. Both then meet at the chorus where the magic happens. The harmony and blending of their voices serve as a taste of heaven on earth.
Listen to Jessi Colter and Johnny Cash singing the classic gospel hymn “The Old Rugged Cross” in a duet:
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