Johnny Cash's Song of Redemption
JOHNNY CASH'S popularity had been higher than when he died September 12, but he had never been more hip. Nominated for MTV's video of the year, Cash was considered not just one of the last musical greats of his generation, but also a giant of contemporary artists. He had recorded with Elvis, Dylan, Bono, and Flea (and even some artists known by their full names). Memorials included quotes from the worlds of rap and bluegrass and everything between.
And against all popular wisdom, he became a celebrity's celebrity while singing more explicitly about Jesus than many contemporary Christian music favorites.
He didn't start that way. When Cash finagled his way into an audition for Sam Phillips's Sun Records in 1955, he told the producer he was a gospel singer.
"You know, I love gospel music," Phillips replied. "But unless you're Mahalia Jackson, or somebody that established, you can't even cover the cost of the recording."
Fourteen years later, Cash was the best-selling artist alive, outperforming even the Beatles. ABC gave the newly sober singer his own weekly television show, airing from the Grand Ole Opry, from which he had been banned only four years before for kicking out the stage lights in a drug-addled fury.
Introducing one of his gospel songs—which he was recording an increasing number of at the time—Cash told his audience, "I am a Christian."
The network sent one of the producers to order Cash not to talk about religion on the air.
"You're producing the wrong man here, because gospel music is part of what I am and part of what I do," Cash replied. "If you don't like it, you can always edit it."
They didn't edit it, nor any future reference, but Cash later wrote, "The worldly consequences of my declaration were severe, not just in lost record sales but also in some of the reactions from religious people."
The Man in Black (so nicknamed for his somber wardrobe) had by then recorded several gospel albums, but often had to push for them. "My record company," he lamented, "would rather I'd be in prison than in church."
At the end of Cash's career—or, more accurately, at the resurrection of his career a decade ago—producer Rick Rubin offered Cash to record anything he wanted. Rubin, whom Cash called "the ultimate hippie," isn't someone one might expect to embrace Cash's gospel side. His American Recordings label is known for the kind of rap, metal, and rock bands that most Christian entertainment watchdogs fill warning pages with. Nevertheless, he told Cash, "I'm not familiar with a lot of the music you love, but I want to hear it all."
The album, given the same name as Rubin's label, was unapologetically Christian. On "Redemption," he sang, "The blood gave life to the branches of the tree / And the blood was the price that set the captives free / And the numbers that came through the fire and flood / Clung to the tree and were redeemed by the blood." On "Why Me Lord?" he surrenders, "Now that I know that I've needed you so, Jesus, my soul's in your hand."
American Recordings won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album and was followed by three more collaborations with Rubin. The most recent, last year's American IV: The Man Comes Around, begins with the apocalyptic growl of the title track: "There's a man going 'round taking names / And he decides who to free and who to blame / Everybody won't be treated all the same / There'll be a golden ladder reaching down / When the Man comes around." No one wants to hear about hell and judgment, it's said, but American IV was Cash's most successful venture with Rubin, selling 500,000 copies before his death.