The Gospel According to Johnny Cash, by Richard Beck
FEBRUARY 1, 2020
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
The brief introduction came through my car speakers, followed by a thunderous eruption so loud that I turned the volume down a bit—hundreds of men cheering, screaming, and stomping their feet. The guitar came in with that signature boom-chicka-boom rhythm. And then I heard the iconic, unforgettable voice. Johnny Cash, live at Folsom Prison.
I was driving to a prison as the Man in Black sang about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. Driving past barbed-wire fences, mesquite trees, and cacti, I was heading north out of Abilene, Texas, on Farm Road 1082 to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility, the maximum-security French Robertson Unit—home to over two thousand incarcerated souls. The State of Texas dresses its prisoners in all white. We call the inmates the Men in White.
On Monday nights, I lead a Bible study for fifty inmates at the French Robertson Unit. For their entire week, our embrace and conversation are the only experience they will have during which they can forget they are a prisoner.
I bought Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison because of these men. I had been leading the study for a few years when I came across the album at a music store. My experiences at French Robertson drew me to the album. I bought it, figuring it would be a great thing to listen to as I drove out of town on country roads toward the prison each week.
My son Aidan, who has listened to a lot of Johnny Cash music because of me, once quipped, “Johnny Cash sings about three things: trains, Jesus, and murder.” Trains, Jesus, and murder. That’s not a bad summary of the music of Johnny Cash. That contrast between Jesus and murder, between gospel hymns and odes to a criminal mentality—and there is nothing like this contrast in the whole of the music industry—is what fascinated me about the music of Johnny Cash. As John Carter Cash observed about his father’s music, Johnny Cash “got people’s attention with songs like ‘Cocaine Blues’ or ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ his demeanor cool and dark. Then he professed his faith and sang of God and salvation.”
Sure, there are artists out there, from rappers to metal bands, who sing about thugs and killing. And plenty of Jesus music is being pumped out by the Christian music industry. But no one sings about Jesus and murder on the very same album. No one, that is, except Johnny Cash. Pick up any Johnny Cash album, and you’ll likely find a hymn of praise next to a murder ballad. Saints and sinners are all jumbled up together. This is the mixture I discovered out at the prison: “Cocaine Blues” and “Greystone Chapel” are found in the very same place or person. Seams of gold run through the blackest of hearts. Faith shines brightest in the darkest of places. And I feel closest to God worshipping with the damned.
These are contrasts that transfix us about the music and life of Johnny Cash. The author Flannery O’Connor once said her literary project was describing the action of grace in territory controlled by the devil. The same can be said about the music of Johnny Cash. It’s what I’ve experienced with the Men in White on Monday evenings: the action of grace in territory controlled by the devil, Jesus among the murderers, the saint within the sinner, God in the depths of hell. Trains, Jesus, and murder—somewhere in there is the gospel according to Johnny Cash.
Adapted from Trains, Jesus, & Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash by Richard Beck. Copyright © 2019 Fortress Press, an imprint of 1517 Media. Used by permission.