For Johnny Cash, the path to God didn’t run sooth. Having fought through addictions and even a suicide attempt before turning to Christ, he earned the right to declare, “Being a Christian isn’t for sissies.”
“I don’t compromise my religion,” Cash once told a reporter. “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. When you’re imposing you’re offending, I feel. Although I am evangelical, and I’ll give the message to anyone that wants to hear it, or anybody that is willing to listen. But if they let me know that they don’t want to hear it, they ain’t never going to hear it from me.”
However private he might have been in person, Cash’s faith poured out in his music, often taking center stage in some of his most famous tracks. This weekend marks the 12th anniversary of Cash’s passing. In honor of The Man in Black and his musical legacy, here are our 10 favorite spiritually leaning Johnny Cash songs.
10. “In the Sweet By and By”
A promise of life after death—and oh how sweet it is. Cash’s take on this traditional spiritual is a much-needed exercise in sentimentality and longing.
9. “That’s Enough”
“Well, you may scorn me, turn your back on me,” Cash croons. “God’s got His arms wrapped all around me.” A call to an authentic life wrapped in a jaunty piece of country, “That’s Enough” hits all the right notes.
8. “Help Me”
A paean to the power that comes with realizing you’re at the end of your rope and asking for divine intervention. Humility never sounded so sweet.
7. “Just as I Am”
Cash had no qualms about declaring spiritual bankruptcy. “I confess right up front that I’m the biggest sinner of them all,” he once famously noted. But in his revamping of this classic song, he manages to convey a peace that passes all understanding.
6. “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord?)”
An American spiritual first printed in 1899, Cash’s version doesn’t stray much from the traditional version. But rendered in Cash’s whisky-soaked baritone, it’s difficult not feel the verisimilitude in each note.
A straightforward tale of sin and redemption delivered in fine noir-folk fashion. “Thank God for redemption,” Cash tells the audience in this video before debuting the track. True dat, Johnny. True dat indeed.
4. “Why Me Lord?”
Here Cash asks the ultimate question: Why is one person given so many blessings while others are seemingly left in the cold? Unable to reconcile human rules with divine intervention, he falls into a familiar trope. “Try me Lord/If You think there’s a way/That I can repay/What I’ve taken from You” he sings before realizing that no matter what he does, “my soul’s in your hand.”
3. “God’s Going to Cut You Down”
A percussive call to redemption so catchy even Moby felt the need to sample it.
“God’s Going to Cut You Down” sees Cash “on bended knee talkin’ to the man from Galilee.” But it’s all of us that should be listening to his call.
2. “Hurt” (Nine Inch Nails Cover)
One imagines that Trent Reznor wasn’t exactly digging for spiritual truths when he recorded this ode to loneliness, depression and self-harm. But when Cash covered the Nine Inch Nails track for his 2002 album American IV, the song (and accompanying music video) became a dark ode to an even darker world, and a haunting look at man’s spiritual limitations.
1. “Man In Black”
With “Man in Black,” Cash manages to deliver the ultimate of who is and how faith defines what he does. And if it looks a little funny? Well then, so be it. “I wear the black for those who’ve never read/Or listened to the words that Jesus said/About the road to happiness through love and charity,” he sings, unapologetically. “Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.”
Laura Studarus is a staff writer at RELEVANT. She likes catsup and pie. Now there's nothing left to discuss on the second date. Follow her on Twitter @Laura_Studarus.