A Half Century of The Holy Land by Johnny Cash
Rick Rubin’s American Recordings and the 2005 biopic I Walk the Line inadvertently feed true yet limiting perceptions of Johnny Cash as a proto-punk renegade, heavy drinker and hardened drug addict with a life that mirrored many rock and country song clichés.
Fair or not, Cash’s well-chronicled struggles and his gruff exterior make it easy to lose sight of a multi-faceted individual who was as much a patriot, family man and devout Christian as he was a modern-day outlaw.
For perspective on Cash’s softer side, look no further than the January 1969 release of The Holy Land, a celebration of faith steadfast enough to combat lingering vices.
Even at his lowest points, Cash loved gospel music. Early on, Sam Phillips of Sun Records scoffed at Cash’s interest in pushing “Belshazzar” and other early career songs grounded in scriptures as potential hits. Phillips believed that gospel just wouldn’t sell records anymore after the advent of rock ‘n’ roll.
By the time Cash signed with Columbia Records in 1958, he’d earned enough leverage within the music business to release albums’ worth of Christian music. A little over 10 years into his deal, Cash was a much different man with a much different mission for his third gospel album and 30th full-length release overall.
As Cash and his new bride June Carter Cash became serious together about Christianity in the late ‘60s, they saw the still-young nation of Israel’s very existence as the product of Biblical prophecies. The couple visited the Middle East several times over the years, with fruits of those visits including the well-intentioned yet poorly-aged 1973 film The Gospel Road and the 1992 VHS release Return to the Promised Land.
The Holy Land remains the strongest commercial product to come from Cash’s overseas excursions. If Phillips scoffed at gospel songs as singles, he surely would’ve laughed Cash out of the studio if he’d pitched a spoken-word concept album about Jesus. Columbia went along with a 21-track album that includes just eight songs—seven if you don’t count a partially narrated rendition of “Beautiful Words.”
Tracks captured on a portable recorder feature Johnny, June and a tour guide named Jacob as they describe modern-day sights and scenes around key locations in the New Testament. The narrations add new meanings to the songs, which in this context become the soundtrack to a faith-driven travelogue of sights revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims.
As for the songs themselves, most capture Cash’s passion for the Holy Land (“Land of Israel”) and his belief in the Bible (“He Turned the Water into Wine”). There’s also a cover of Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith’s “The Fourth Man,” a story about Daniel that Cash likely discussed over the years with father-in-law and self-taught Old Testament scholar Ezra Carter.
Fellow Sun alum and recovering alcoholic Carl Perkins penned the album’s lone single, “Daddy Sang Bass.” A song so grounded in old-time values and so popular with Southern gospel quartets sounds like it came from a much simpler time than the turbulent Vietnam War years. Believe it or not, a song now associated with Bill Gaither Homecoming videos and tent revivals topped the country charts and even cracked the pop-oriented Billboard Top 100. It remains one of the most familiar tunes by the writer of “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Cash’s spiritual recommitment was no passing phase. In the 1970s, it was not unusual to catch him performing on television at a Billy Graham crusade. In addition, the Cash family became supporters of the Nashville star-friendly Evangel Temple Church, pastored by Hank Snow’s son Jimmie.
Although the album represents a fresh start in some ways for Cash, it also marks a tragic final chapter for one of his bandmates. It’s the last album featuring Cash’s longtime guitarist Luther Perkins (no relation to Carl), who passed away in a home fire on Aug. 5, 1968. As a member of the Tennessee Three, Perkins helped popularize the rhythmic “boom-chicka-boom” guitar style associated with Cash’s earliest recordings.
In the grand scheme of things, Cash represents more than the trappings of addiction. To paraphrase Carl Jung, the wild stories are just the shadow of a man who, despite dealing with some of the same struggles long after 1969, often found inner solace through personal faith and a supportive family.