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Johnny Cash’s Gospel | The New Yorker

“Trains, Jesus, and Murder” makes its way through Johnny Cash’s core religious ideas.Photograph from Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

Johnny Cash became the Man in Black by accident. It was the only color shirt that he and his two bandmates had in common when they were asked to sing gospel songs at an evening service in Memphis, Tennessee. “Black is better for church,” Cash said at the time, although later he’d go further, singing, “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,” including those “who’ve never read / Or listened to the words that Jesus said.”

Gospel music changed Cash’s career, and the gospel of Jesus Christ changed his life. He grew up in the church, going to worship every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday evening, in Dyess, Arkansas, a New Deal town near the Mississippi River, where, throughout the week, he’d sing hymns in the cotton fields. His paternal grandfather was a circuit preacher, but it was Cash’s mother, Carrie, who taught her seven children to love the Lord. Cash later recorded an acoustic album in her honor, called “My Mother’s Hymn Book,” filled with the spirituals of his childhood, such as “Softly and Tenderly” and “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” and he swore it was his favorite record. For decades, his mother begged him to record himself reading the Bible, and when he finally did, he read the whole of the New Testament—nearly nineteen hours of the King James Version, released in 2004, by the Christian publisher Thomas Nelson.

I was listening to that recording when I got a copy of Richard Beck’s new book, “Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash” (Fortress Press). Beck is a psychology professor who teaches a weekly Bible study at the French Robertson Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a maximum-security facility in Abilene, Texas. He’s written an odd little book, a hodgepodge of music criticism, theodicy, biography, exegesis, meditations on fatherhood, and musings on his own prison ministry. The title was inspired partly by Beck’s son, who jokes that Johnny Cash’s songs are all about murder, trains, and Jesus. But it also nods to Cash’s liner notes for one of his later albums, “Unchained,” from 1996, which include a stranger, more thorough, and more beautiful list:

I love songs about horses, railroads, land, Judgment Day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother. And God.

A lot of country musicians make their careers off of nouns; Cash did without the pickup trucks and Mason jars, homing in instead on the harder stuff of that jumbled list. What I love about Beck’s book is that it doesn’t pretend to find a systematic theology in the results. “Trains, Jesus, and Murder” just makes its way through Cash’s nouns, the core ideas that animated his life and gave meaning to his music, pausing along the way to tell stories from his career, including both some I’d heard and some I hadn’t. Each of the book’s fifteen chapters takes its title, and much of its content, from a Cash song: “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” describes how he put together “Bitter Tears,” his record of protest songs about the plight of Native Americans, and “Folsom Prison Blues” begins with Cash’s first prison concert, in 1959, and ends with him recording the live album “At Folsom Prison,” in 1968.

One of the best chapters is the heartbreaking “Greystone Chapel,” which starts with a pastor passing Cash a copy of a song by a Folsom prisoner named Glen Sherley—a simple melody with plaintive words, about a prison chapel and the bars that can imprison anyone’s soul. A long relationship between the two men began when Cash surprised Sherley by performing the song live, during one of his prison concerts. I’d known that, and anyone who has listened to “At Folsom Prison” probably does, too, since Cash introduces the track by saying, “This next song was written by a man right here in Folsom. . . . This song was written by our friend Glen Sherley. Hope we do your song justice, Glen, we’re going to do our best.” But I’d never known what happened after that performance. Cash spent three years lobbying to get Sherley paroled, not only through direct appeals but by enlisting the Reverend Billy Graham in the cause and having Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, make a call, too.

Sherley was finally paroled in 1971. Cash moved him to Nashville and got him set up writing songs and performing with his band; a year later, the pair testified together before a Senate subcommittee to advocate for prison reform. But then Cash fired Sherley for threatening a member of the band, and they drifted apart. Thereafter, Sherley struggled both personally and professionally, and he committed suicide, in 1978. “You can’t hasten someone else’s recovery or enlightenment,” Beck quotes Cash’s daughter, the musician Rosanne Cash, saying. “I think my dad had a sense of maybe he could and it didn’t turn out well all the time.”

“Greystone Chapel” is a messy, moving chapter, partly because you see Beck, while thinking about fear and forgiveness in his own prison ministry, struggle with the same challenges as Cash. Here and elsewhere, Beck wrestles not only with issues of solidarity but also with patriotism and the complexities of Cash’s simultaneously conservative and countercultural appeal. It’s a familiar bind for country-music artists; in Cash’s case, it came to a head when he was invited to perform for President Richard Nixon, in 1970. The White House announced that Cash would perform “Okie from Muskogee,” the famous anti-antiwar anthem by Merle Haggard, and “Welfare Cadillac,” a racist dog whistle by Guy Drake—but he refused and instead performed his prison set, including “What Is Truth,” a protest song of sorts that he likened to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” (The standoff is given even more attention in the documentary film “ReMastered: Tricky Dick and the Man in Black.”)

Elsewhere, the book goes a little slack. Near the end, for instance, Beck offers a very, very, very close reading of the song “The Man Comes Around,” in which he gathers up verses of the Gospels and bits of Revelation, like a bird over-anxiously lining its nest. Scripture was Cash’s currency, so I understand the temptation to try to find every reference and identify every echo in his lyrics. It is true that his phrase “takin’ names” was inspired by scenes from Revelation, and that Jesus says “kick against the pricks” to Paul on the road to Damascus, in Acts. But it seems like a stretch to suggest, as Beck does, that the song’s lyric “measured hundred weight and penny pound” is either an allusion to John the Divine’s “Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages” or God’s judgment of King Belshazzar, as having “been weighed in the balance, and found wanting.” More to the point, the cumulative effect of all of this parsing reads more like a concordance than an exegesis of the song.

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