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 ...

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