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Sufferer, Saint or Sinner? Johnny Cash and the Gospel

Bob Dylan, in his autobiography, says the following about Johnny Cash:

“Johnny didn’t have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow… full tilt and vibrant with danger... Johnny’s voice was so big, it made the world grow small.” [1]

Music first came into my family’s life Christmas of 1969, when my dad bought us a little portable record player. And the first album we played on it was Ring of Fire. Even on that tinny sounding phonograph, Cash’s voice was booming and large. The man in black has been from that day on a part of my life. I have a t-shirt that proudly says to any one who will look, “God Bless Johnny Cash.” From the smiles and nods I get whenever I wear it, the man in black holds this place of favor in the lives of many.

According to Cash, Billy Graham once told him, “Keep singing Folsom Prison Blues and A Boy Named Sue and all those other outlaw songs if that’s what people want to hear. And then, when it comes time to do a gospel song, give it everything (you have).”[2] Graham’s gospel permitted this kind of dual identity. His version of justification allowed someone to be simultaneously outlaw and saint (Simul justus et peccator), as long as there was a little more gusto on the “downbeat” of saint.

People did want to hear the outlaw songs. I did, you did, we all did. I know Cash sings gospel songs, has entire albums of hymns, but we don’t call him the “man in black” because of these. He’s the man in black because he sings “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” And when he sings these songs with his rugged visage and booming voice, “full tilt and vibrant with danger,” you believe he could.

I love the early Cash. There are so many great songs. Ring of Fire, Walk the Line, I Still Miss Someone, Jackson. But can you think of a hit in the middle of his career? They are few and forgettable. When Cash released the Folsom Prison Live album in 1968, he hadn’t had a hit record since 1964. Folsom Prison Live revived his career and precisely around the image of the outlaw. On that same album, he performed  another “outlaw” song, Cocaine Blues.  “Early one morning while making the rounds, I took a shot of cocaine and shot my woman down… When they arrested me I was dressed in all black.” Folsom had revived his career for a moment and around the image of the outlaw.

 By Brett Jordan [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Flikr

By Brett Jordan [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Flikr

After Folsom, the hits were again hard to come by. In fact, Cash is best known during this time for singing with the Highwaymen, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristoffreson, Waylan Jennings and Cash. They were musical outlaws, living outside of the bounds of polite company. You were left with the impression that they were as likely to rob a bank or steal your girl as play their guitars and sing. They were a band of rogues and the public loved them. But during this time, I lost interest in Johnny Cash. He simply wasn’t interesting to me musically.

I lost interest until 1994, when late in his life he teamed with legendary producer Rick Rubin to produce a series of six albums, The American Series. These albums were met with universal acclaim. Rolling Stone wrote, "American Recordings is at once monumental and viscerally intimate, fiercely true to the legend of Johnny Cash and entirely contemporary."

I agree. I could listen to them all day. Some of the covers are extraordinary, Soundgarden’s, Rusty Cage, Depeche Mode’s, My Own Personal Jesus, U2’s, One, Tom Petty’s, I Won’t Back Down, all great renditions. Original songs like Unchained and The Man Comes Around are also among Cash’s best songs.

Also noteworthy, however, is the lack of songs that celebrate the outlaw. There are a few hanging songs in this collection, like the cover of Sting’s, I Hung My Head, that sings remorsefully of an accidental killing, or Mercy Seat, a conversation with God on the occasion of dying by the electric chair, but none that glorify the life of the outlaw.

Something had changed. I would describe the shift this way: the outlaw/saint dichotomy had been replaced by something else, the sufferer/saint, and the result was more satisfying.

 By CBS Television (frontback) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By CBS Television (frontback) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rubin describes the first time he laid eyes on Cash at the beginning of their recording sessions. Cash had to be carried down into the studio. He was in constant pain due to an accident on his property and without the aid of pain pills, to which he was addicted, left to suffer through the pain. He was virtually blind and feeble. Rubin thought to himself, this will never work. That is, he thought it would never work until Cash picked up his guitar and began to sing.

It’s not the Johnny Cash of Folsom Prison Blues, either in voice or personhood. His voice now quivers. But it is no less powerful because it expresses poignantly his pain. I played for a friend, and big U2 fan, Cash’s version of One and tears came immediately to his eyes. You can feel the years and the pain in his voice. On these albums, Cash’s voice carries less the danger of an outlaw and more the pathos of the sufferer.

The epitome of this is Cash’s brilliant cover of Hurt, a Nine Inch Nails song. Under Rubin’s direction, the pounding piano, the haunting lyrics, and Cash’s life-worn voice created an instant classic. “I hurt myself today to see if I still feel.”

Here’s the thing, Cash the man and Cash the artist were now one in a way the image of the outlaw/saint never allowed him to be. Graham’s advice, sing the outlaw songs, but sing the gospel songs with everything you have, left Cash a divided man. The dichotomy of “shot a man in reno just to watch him die” and “old rugged cross,” was left untroubled by Graham’s gospel. Under this gospel, it was possible to be both outlaw and saint, but in reality it was a hard act to pull off, both musically and personally.

This is my proposal. The gospel is more satisfying, more personally integrating, more hopeful, more moral, when the presenting issue is suffering rather than personal guilt. The sufferer/saint motif recognizes the trouble of the world and even our complicity in it. It throws us more completely and satisfyingly into the heart of the realities that confront us all: pain, loss, grief, abandonment, forsakenness. And more importantly it situates the death of Jesus, not as a payment to appease a wrathful God, but as God’s way to join redemptive love to the deepest trouble in life. It integrates all of life around the practice of steadfast love.

Simul justus et peccator,” on the other hand, leaves our lives susceptible to compartmentalization, and with unsatisfying results. Graham’s gospel left Cash without an integrated self, and adrift both personally and musically. In contrast, the American series gives us an integrated Cash around the theme of suffering. For my money, it’s the most satisfying version of Cash, both musically and theologically.

In 1971, Cash was sober. Though he would later relapse, he had begun to take stock of his life. He released that year the song Man in Black, a different “man in black” than the one he sang about in Cocaine Blues. A different man in black than the one who shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold…

And on he sings, a Johnny Cash integrated in and out of his own, and others, suffering.

God bless Johnny Cash.


[1] Chronicles, 217

[2] Cash, 208

Cover Image: By Joel Baldwin - LOOK April 29, 1969. p.74, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1208077

Cover Image: By Jean-Luc (originally posted to Flickr as Bob Dylan) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons



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