Trains, Jesus and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash
By Richard Beck
Fortress. pp. 205. $13.99

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Review by Jody Howard.

“We are from Germany and we are looking for the grave of Johnny Cash.” I was bemused when the visitors outside our church office said these words to me, but it was not the last time I would hear them.

In 2010, I was called to serve St. Joseph of Arimathea in Hendersonville Tennessee. The church sits at the corner of Country Club Drive and East Main Street. But that stretch of Tennessee 31E has another name in Hendersonville: Johnny Cash Parkway. Cash was a storied resident of the community and arguably his fame has spread — or at least deepened — since his death in 2003. By the time I moved to Hendersonville, his grave, which is six tenths of a mile from the church, had become a pilgrimage site for many people, remarkably for some from Germany and Eastern Europe, as well as others.

I’ve been a fan of Cash since I picked up American II: Unchained in my senior year of high school. Over the years it’s been intriguing to see the staying power of his music. I’ve observed younger people find their way to it, as I did, and then work their way backwards in his catalogue. You never know who’ll say “I love Johnny Cash.”

In Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash Richard Beck reflects on what makes Cash’s music enduring, but more specifically, how his music embodies and furthers a particular understanding of the gospel. Beck, a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University who also studies and writes theology, finds Cash’s gospel faithful, attractive, and relevant for people today.

Beck’s affinity for Cash is experiential. From the beginning of the book, it is clear that Beck and Cash are connected by their concern for and ministry to those in prison. Beck leads a weekly Bible Study for inmates at a maximum-security prison. This prompted him to purchase his first Cash album, At Folsom Prison,“figuring it would be a great thing to listen to as [he] drove out of town on country roads toward the prison each week”

Trains, Jesus, and Murder is divided into four parts, treating the themes family and faith (part 1), sinners and solidarity (part 2), nation and nostalgia (part 3), and suffering and salvation (part 4). An epilogue, “The Gospel Road” closes out the book. The themes lifted up in the four sections are examined in fifteen chapters, each titled with the name of a Cash song, which provides a scaffolding for the chapter. Songs introduce opportunities to reflect on Cash’s personal history, the song origins, and the ways that Cash’s writing was inspired by and reflected on his faith. Beck also offers interesting parallels between Cash’s songs and scripture. Beck unearths from Cash’s music and life, a series of recurring themes, including a focus on regret, solidarity and compassion, the dangers of nostalgia, and most significantly, the deep hope of faith in Jesus.

One flaw in Beck’s analysis is that he overestimates Cash’s uniqueness in writing songs shaped both by Gospel hymns and murder ballads. I immediately thought about the recently released podcast Dolly Parton’s America, in which this other legend of country music characterizes many of her early works as “sad-ass songs.” Some of those, including murder ballads, were traditional, while others are original compositions. I think that’s a fair appellation for much of Cash’s music as well. Indeed, “trains, Jesus, and murder” could summarize swaths of bluegrass, old time, folk and Americana music. And yet, Beck does have a point. Cash may not be the only artist to sing about these things, but as an artist he’s more fully defined by them than anyone else, distilling, and perhaps perfecting, this broader lyrical tradition.

Cash’s association with these themes evokes a kind of nostalgia, but one shot through with solidarity, and pointing toward the Christian hope. Parton and Cash are different in this. Dolly mostly left behind her “sad-ass songs,” connecting with new audiences through a more jubilant vision of hope. But as his life and career advanced, Cash seemed to double down on the tradition. He delved ever deeper, especially in his late career revival with American Recordings, plumbing his history, his identity, roots and place, and especially his faith, offering a sometimes apocalyptic hope from within that context.

In Dolly Parton’s America, Dolly is asked by the host Jan Abumrad where home is. Her answer (paraphrased) is that she lives all over — that the world is her home. It’s hard to imagine Johnny Cash offering the same response. Both Parton’s and Cash’s work seems to pour forth like a spring from the rocks of the places where they’re from, but the streams flow in different directions. And yet, Germans and Poles still show up in Hendersonville looking for Johnny Cash’s grave. For all its rootedness, Cash’s music clearly tapped into deep human experience.

Jody Howard is canon to the ordinary of the Diocese of Tennessee.