The best gospel recordings—by Aretha Franklin, The Staples Singers, The Carter Family, even Elvis—hum with a deep sincerity that can be truly moving, despite the unintentionally funny earnestness of ballads like “He Touched Me” (not to mention some of those album covers). You can add to the list of Southern gospel greats the name of Johnny Cash, who, like Elvis, got his start singing gospel and returned frequently to the hymns of his youth. Unlike the King, however, Cash also returned to the fold in the 1970s, partly influenced by his wife June Carter.
Cash would record a total of eight solo gospel albums with Columbia Records over his career, and a sort of old-time gospel greatest hits with The Million Dollar Quartet (Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins). He wrote a 1986 novelization of the life of the Apostle Paul called Man in White, and a song of the same name (below), and in 1990, the aging star recorded the entire New Testament, New King James Version. Hear the Gospel of Matthew above, and listen to the whole thing on Youtube. Running over 19 hours, the recording was repackaged in 2008 as a DVD called Chapter and Verse, with a slideshow and a CD of 14 of Cash’s gospel recordings.
Like his life and career, Cash’s religious journey was tumultuous, but once he’d kicked his addiction, he became something of a “staunch, conservative Bible thumper,” writing in the introduction to The Man in White, “Please understand that I believe the Bible, the whole Bible, to be the infallible, indisputable Word of God.” His theological views may have tempered over the years, but they remained staunchly Evangelical to the end of his life. That said, Cash “was a private man and preferred to keep his faith to himself,” once declaring, “If I’m with someone who doesn’t want to talk about it, I don’t talk about it. I don’t impose myself on anybody in any way, including religion.”
As in everything else Cash recorded, his conviction comes through in his reading above. While he didn’t preach, he did practice what he understood to be the values of his faith, standing up for the poor, imprisoned, and oppressed and against the power structures that constantly beat them down. Cash’s humility and commitment to principle have inspired millions of people who share his beliefs and millions who don’t. To learn more about this little-discussed side of the Man in Black, listen to the one-hour radio documentary below from Public Radio Exchange.