Best Gospel Songs by Pop Stars (Part 5): Cash & Byrds

 

Chimesfreedom continues its periodic discussion of the best gospel songs by popular singers.  In this Post, we consider recordings by Johnny Cash and The Byrds.

“Spiritual,” Johnny Cash

I am not sure why it has taken me until this far into our “Gospel Songs by Pop Stars” series to write about “Spiritual” because I love this song. Johnny Cash, of course, recorded a number of religious songs though his career, but this one recorded near the end of his life stands out for me.

“Spiritual” was written by Josh Haden, son of great jazz bassist Charlie Haden. There are other excellent versions of the song, including one of Josh singing on his father’s 2008 album, Rambling Boy. But Johnny Cash’s version from his 1996 Unchained album gets me every time.

The song starts slow and hypnotic, gradually building to an emotional cry of pain. Beautiful.

“I Like the Christian Life,” The Byrds

The Byrds, under the influence of Gram Parsons, recorded “I Like the Christian Life” for their Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968) album. The excellent album is largely credited as a major catalyst for the country-rock movement, and “The Christian Life” was a cover of a classic Louvin Brothers song for the hippie crowd.

On a rock record, one might expect the song to translate into tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, but the song feels genuine in its praise of living a simple Christian life. It is hard to imagine an album by a major pop group including a song like this one today.

Originally, the Byrds recorded the song with Gram Parsons singing lead vocal, but a dispute about Parson’s contract with another record company, the Byrds replaced Parsons’s lead vocals on some of the songs. Some believe that the change was also motivated by the band’s concern that the album was becoming too much of a Gram Parsons project.

So, the official album version featured Roger McGuinn’s vocals dubbed into the lead. Both versions are excellent and appear on re-issues. Below is McGuinn’s version that was originally released on the CD.

For comparison, below is a rehearsal take featuring Gram Parsons singing lead.

 

 

Check out other posts in our series on Gospel Songs by Pop Singers.

What is your favorite gospel song by a popular singer? Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • Charlie Haden’s “Spiritual”
  • Sturgill Simpson: “You Don’t Miss Your Water”
  • The Byrds Release “Mr. Tambourine Man”
  • Best Gospel Songs by Pop Singers 4: Morning, Flying & Mystery
  • Great Song, Bad Name: Hot Burrito #1
  • Best Gospel Songs by Pop Singers 3: Ready, Walk, Great
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)