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.)

    Merle Haggard, The Impressionist

    We all know Merle Haggard was a great talented songwriter and singer. But a clip from The Glen Campbell Show also shows his impressionist talents.  He was pretty good at copying the voices of some other country music greats.

    In this video, Haggard impersonates several great country singers.  He does his version of Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Buck Owens, and Johnny Cash.

    Also in this segment, Buck Owens and Johnny Cash show up to join in the fun. Check it out.

    See our previous post on Johnny Cash’s impersonation of Elvis Presley.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • Willie and Merle Are “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash”
  • The First Farm Aid
  • Brandon Flowers and Others Cover “New” Johnny Cash Songs
  • Buck Owens: Don’t Judge a Man’s Music By His Overalls
  • The Ambiguous Anti-War Underpinnings of “Galveston”
  • I Have to Leave You: Glen Campbell’s Adiós
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)

    Johnny Cash Imitating Elvis

    In this video, Johnny Cash shows that he could have had another career as an Elvis impersonator. The clip is apparently from 1959 when Cash was 27 years old and touring as an opening act for Elvis Presley.

    Before his performance of “Heartbreak Hotel,” Cash clarifies that he is not impersonating Elvis directly. He explains it is “an impersonation of a rock and roll singer impersonating Elvis is what this really is.”

    Perhaps he wanted to add the extra layer of making fun of an impersonator rather than Elvis to somewhat insulate himself from making fun of his former colleague at Sun Records. In fact, the two men admired each other, and Elvis Presley even introduced Cash’s future wife June Carter to the wonder of Johnny Cash’s music.

    Who is your favorite Elvis impersonator? Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • The Impromptu Million Dollar Quartet
  • Columbia Records Drops Johnny Cash: “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”
  • The End of Maryland’s Death Penalty and “Green, Green Grass of Home”
  • Lonely Street: The Sad Story Behind “Heartbreak Hotel”
  • Best Gospel Songs by Pop Stars (Part 5): Cash & Byrds
  • Who Was Poor Old Johnnie Ray?
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)

    “Ranch Party” With Johnny Cash & Patsy Cline

    In 1957, Tex Ritter’s Ranch Party television show featured a number of guests, including a young Johnny Cash playing his new hit song “I Walk the Line.” Also, Ritter introduced another young artist, Patsy Cline, who was born on September 8, 1932 as Virginia Patterson Hensley in Gore, Virginia. Here, Ritter introduces her as “a little lady that great things have been happening to here in the past year or so.”

    So, go back to the 1950s and remember from before Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash became legends. The show featured several other talented country and rockabilly artists too. Check it out.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • Best Gospel Songs by Pop Stars (Part 5): Cash & Byrds
  • Merle Haggard, The Impressionist
  • Song of the Day: “If a Song Could Be President”
  • Johnny Cash Imitating Elvis
  • Willie and Merle Are “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash”
  • The First Farm Aid
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)

    Willie and Merle Are “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash”

    Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard have teamed up to release the new album Django And Jimmie (2015). The two men, who created country gold with the similarly named 1983 album Pancho & Lefty, feature a range of styles on their new album, incorporating some humor along the way with songs like “It’s All Going to Pot” and “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash.”

    Check out this video about the making of “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” a song that also features help from Bobby Bare.

    Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s Django and Jimmie hits stores on June 2, and for a short time you can give it a streaming listen on NPR First Listen. The title song from the album celebrates guitarist Django Reinhardt and country music legend Jimmie Rodgers.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • The First Farm Aid
  • Merle Haggard, The Impressionist
  • Merle Haggard: “Kern River”
  • Highwaymen Reunite at Grammys (Sort Of)
  • “Bird on a Wire” and the Return of the Bald Eagle
  • Devil’s Right Hand Arrest in New York City
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)