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
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    Sturgill Simpson: “You Don’t Miss Your Water”

    Although Sturgill Simpson’s voice is most often compared to Waylon Jennings, his choice in music often connects him to a wide variety of artists. So it was pretty cool recently to see he had performed “You Don’t Miss Your Water” live.

    “You Don’t Miss Your Water” was written by William Bell, who released his own version of the song on Stax Records in 1961. Most people, however, may be familiar with Otis Redding‘s version that appeared on his 1965 album Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul.

    Sturgill Simpson, however, is not the first person to take the soul song into country territory. The Byrds covered the song on Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), with Roger McGuinn doing lead vocal work on the official release even though Gram Parsons had originally recorded the lead.

    With such a rich history, a lot of people still do not know the song. So, it was great to see that Simpson performed “You Don’t Miss Your Water” at First Avenue in Minneapolis on Sunday, June 5, 2016. Check it out.

    “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is a heartbreak song. The singer explains how how he took his lover for granted, but then he only realized what he had when the lover left: “You don’t miss your water/’Till your well runs dry.” It is a perfect song for both soul and country artists.

    Simpson’s most recent album is A Sailor’s Guide To Earth (2016).

    What is your favorite Sturgill Simpson song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • Sturgill Simpson Live at Paradiso
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  • Best Gospel Songs by Pop Stars (Part 5): Cash & Byrds
  • Sturgill Simpson Covers Nirvana’s “In Bloom”
  • Great Song, Bad Name: Hot Burrito #1
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    Gene Clark in Concert: 1985

    Singer-songwriter Gene Clark passed away on May 24, 1991 in Sherman Oaks, California.  The cause of his death was listed as “natural causes” and a bleeding ulcer, but for much of his life he had battled alcohol addiction.

    Clark, who was born on November 17, 1944 — was only 46 at the time of his death.  His death came a little more than four months after appearing with The Byrds at the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

    Gene Clark’s Career

    The Missouri-born Clark is worth remembering just for his work as a founding member of The Byrds from 1964-1966 that led to such works as “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” (later covered by Tom Petty), “She Don’t Care About Time,” and “Set You Free This Time.” But there was much more to Clark’s career.

    With The Byrds, Clark’s work was at the forefront of folk, country-rock, and psychedelic rock.  For example, Clark was the primary writer of “Eight Miles High.”

    Yet, after Clark left The Byrds, reportedly over his fear of flying, he created substantial work as a solo artist and with others, such as with Carla Olson and with banjo player Doug Dillard. Considering his entire body of work, it is easy to see him as one of America’s under-appreciated music gems and understand why he still inspires indie musicians like Fleet Foxes.

    Clark only had four major-label solo albums during his lifetime, and he never found widespread success. Rolling Stone magazine never even did an interview with him as a solo artist, although the magazine has heaped much posthumous praise upon the singer-songwriter.

    Despite the alcoholism and the demons that Clark battled during many of those those years, he still made great music, including “Spanish Guitar,” which Bob Dylan has praised. His 1974 album No Other has come to be seen as a classic.

    Gene Clark Live in New York City in 1985

    For a taste of Clark’s post-Byrds work, we are lucky to have this 1985 performance in New York City. The video and audio quality are decent for the time period.

    The video is worth watching for a number of reasons, including the final song.  It is a bittersweet reinterpretation of the Byrds’ reinterpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Tambourine Man.”

    Clark’s Ongoing Influence

    A documentary about Clark, Byrd Who Flew Alone, was released in 2013.  Unfortunately, it seems to be hard to track down. In other recent news, Sierra Records is releasing a new Gene Clark album of thought-to-be lost recordings on The Lost Studio Sessions 1964-1982.

    As noted above, Gene Clark continues to influence a number of musicians today. For example, the Skydiggers recently released an album of Gene Clark songs, Here Without You: The Songs of Gene Clark.

    Finally, if you are a fan of Gene Clark, you may want to sign a petition for him to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

    What is your favorite Gene Clark song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • The Byrds Release “Mr. Tambourine Man”
  • The Flying Burrito Brothers Song That Includes a Tribute to Bobby Kennedy
  • Best Gospel Songs by Pop Stars (Part 5): Cash & Byrds
  • Sturgill Simpson: “You Don’t Miss Your Water”
  • Skydiggers (and the brothers Cash) Still “Ramblin’ On”
  • The Great Nameless Country Voice of Texas Playboy Tommy Duncan
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    The Byrds Release “Mr. Tambourine Man”

    On June 21, 1965, the Byrds helped launch the folk-rock movement with their release of their debut album with the title track of a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Below, The Byrds perform the song on television in the 1960s.

    The Byrds — with Roger McGuinn singing lead as Gene Clark and David Crosby provided the harmony — recorded “Mr. Tambourine Man” in January for their debut album even before Dylan had a chance to record it himself. When Dylan heard what the Byrds did to his song, he reportedly exclaimed, “Wow, man, you can even dance to that!” By the time the Byrds released their album on June 21, 1965, Dylan was in the studio finishing up “Like a Rolling Stone.”

    In this video below from a 2009 webcast, Chris Hillman of The Byrds tells how the band came to reinterpret “Mr. Tambourine Man” and how jazz great Miles Davis helped the band get its first record contract. Check it out.

    “Mr. Tambourine Man” also has been covered by Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Teenage Fan Club, William Shatner, and Kevin Costner. For another performance of “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds, check out their second television performance in May 1965 before their first album was officially released.

    What is your favorite version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

  • October 1992: They Were So Much Older Then
  • Best Gospel Songs by Pop Stars (Part 5): Cash & Byrds
  • Gene Clark in Concert: 1985
  • The Man Behind the Organ in “Like a Rolling Stone”
  • The Flying Burrito Brothers Song That Includes a Tribute to Bobby Kennedy
  • Dylan’s Late-Career Classics: Not Dark Yet
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    Great Song, Bad Name: Hot Burrito #1

    Gram Parsons (1946-1973) created a lot of great music in his short life. His work as a solo artist and with bands such as The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers greatly influenced the country-rock and alt-country movements. He helped Emmylou Harris start her career. He was friends with Keith Richards and supposedly influenced some of the music made by the Rolling Stones.  And he helped create the wonderful strangely named song “Hot Burrito #1.”

    Once upon a time you let me feel you deep inside

    “Hot Burrito #1” appeared on the Flying Burrito Brothers Gilded Palace of Sin (1969) album.  It was written by Parsons and the band’s bass player Chris Ethridge.

    “Hot Burrito #1” is a great song with a horrible name.  The song, of course, has nothing to do with burritos, and the band’s use of the word “burrito” was not limited to the one song. The band liked to play around with the “burrito” theme, naming their next album Burrito Deluxe. And yes, there is a “Hot Burrito #2.”

    Reportedly, the original use of “burrito” came from bassist Ian Dunlop, who had been in the International Submarine Band and then started a group called “The Flying Burrito Brothers” before Parsons and Chris Hillman borrowed the name for their band.  Dunlop still makes music and also is an artist.

    At one point, Parsons and Hillman had a house in San Fernando Valley that they called “Burrito Manor.”

    Versions of “Hot Burrito #1”

    “Hot Burrito #1” has been recorded and covered by other artists, including Raoul Mao, The Black Crowes, the Cowboy Junkies, and Yim Yames of My Morning Jacket. The song has been covered around the world, including a version by Japanese band Ma’am.

    Elvis Costello recorded the song, but apparently he did not like the name so he renamed it, “I’m Your Toy.” Even though “Hot Burrito #1” is an odd name for a song, “I’m Your Toy” is not really better. Similarly, Jose Feliciano renamed the song with the forgettable title, “Not That Kind of Guy.”

    One sign of the greatness of the song and the melody from Chris Ethridge is that it holds up well no matter who sings it. But it is especially powerful in the Parsons version.

    The song starts out with the singer speaking to a former lover, telling her how she will miss him (“You may be sweet and nice / But that won’t keep you warm at night”). Then slowly you begin to hear the aching desperation in the singer’s voice and in the lyrics (“But I don’t want no one but you / To love me, no I wouldn’t lie”).

    The A Side

    Interestingly, even though we know “Hot Burrito #1” as a classic song, it was not released as a single, only appearing as the B side of the only single at the time, the less memorable “The Train Song.” “The Train Song” was recorded after The Gilded Palace of Sin was completed but released as a single.

    While numerous cover versions of “Hot Burrito #1” are now on YouTube, the A side is not available there at all (you may hear a clip of The Train Song on Amazon). It just goes to show that you cannot judge a song by its initial release, or by its name.

    Do you like the song? What is your favorite great song with a bad name? What other songs have cover artists renamed? Drop a comment.

    Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly implied that “The Train Song” appeared on The Gilded Palace of Sin. Even though the song was released as a single to promote the album, it was recorded after the album was completed. The single “The Train Song” did eventually appear on Hot Burritos! The Flying Burrito Brothers Anthology 1969-1972 (2000). September 2013 Update: A live version of “The Train Song” is now on YouTube.

  • RIP Chris Ethridge of the Flying Burrito Brothers
  • The Flying Burrito Brothers Song That Includes a Tribute to Bobby Kennedy
  • Best Gospel Songs by Pop Stars (Part 5): Cash & Byrds
  • Sturgill Simpson: “You Don’t Miss Your Water”
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