Johnny Cash’s “Gospel Road”

Despite all Johnny Cash’s chart-topping hits—“I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ring of Fire,” etc.—his lesser-known movie The Gospel Road is supposedly his proudest work. [1]

This 1973 feature film was a labor of love: he and his wife produced it themselves. Shot on location in the Holy Land, it features a black-clad Cash narrating the story of Jesus’s life in speech and song as mute reenactments take place on-screen. Additional vocalists include The Carter Family, The Statler Brothers, June Carter Cash (as Mary Magdalene), Kris Kristofferson, and Rita Coolidge.

The full soundtrack—songs and spoken narration—was released as a double album the same year by Columbia Records.  

The song list is as follows (click here to listen on Spotify):

  • “Praise the Lord” – Written and sung by Johnny Cash
  • “Gospel Road” – Written by Christopher S. Wren; sung by Johnny Cash
  • “He Turned the Water into Wine” – Written and sung by Johnny Cash
  • “I See Men as Trees Walking” – Written and sung by Johnny Cash
  • “Jesus Was a Carpenter” – Written by Christopher S. Wren; sung by Johnny Cash
  • “Help” – Written by Larry Gatlin; sung by Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge
  • “Follow Me” – Written by John Denver; sung by June Carter Cash (as Mary Magdalene)
  • “Children” – Written by Joe South; sung by Johnny Cash
  • “Lord, Is It I?” – Written and sung by Harold Reid and Don Reid
  • “Burden of Freedom” – Written by Kris Kristofferson; sung by Johnny Cash
  • “Last Supper” – Written by Larry Gatlin; sung by Johnny Cash
  • “Amen Chorus” – Sung by The Carter Family and The Statler Brothers

The movie is kitschy and safe, and I can’t say I recommend it, but I do like the title track, “Gospel Road.” Written by Christopher S. Wren [2], the song pipes in and out throughout the movie to unify the episodes under the theme of good news going out. It references Jesus’s virgin birth, John the Baptist as his forerunner, his preaching ministry, his feeding of the five thousand, the healings he performed, and his sending out disciples on missionary journeys and some of their martyrdoms. All this action occurs along the “gospel road” that Christ walks and which his disciples follow him down. It is a path that he and they consciously chose, having counted the cost.

I discovered the song (and the movie it originates from) through a Josh Harmony cover from the album Lamps.

In 2012 Sony Legacy released a modified version of “Gospel Road” on the album Bootleg, Vol. IV: The Soul of Truth, a compilation of rare gospel music recordings by Johnny Cash. Recorded September 1, 1982, this version of “Gospel Road” is a previously unreleased outtake from a recording session in Nashville for the album Johnny Cash—Gospel Singer. Cash replaced some of the original verses with new ones that tell the story of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearance in Emmaus as well as the story of Paul and Silas’s miraculous release from prison. Unlike on the Gospel Road album, where the song is split into four separate tracks, here it is sung from start to finish on a single track.

The lyrics are below.    Gospel Road song lyrics

If you’re interested in learning more about the movie, read Matt Page’s review over at Bible Films Blog.

1. John Carter Cash wrote in the liner notes to Bootleg, Vol. IV: The Soul of Truth, dated December 31, 2011, “My father professed this film to be his proudest work.”

2. The film credits Christopher Wren as having written the song “Gospel Road,” but Bootleg, Vol. IV: The Soul of Truth, released in 2012, credits Cash. This latter credit may refer to the lyric revisions Cash made in the later version and not to the music or original words from the film version.

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1 Response to Johnny Cash’s “Gospel Road”

  1. Waye Leong says:

    Gospel Road has been and still a treasure to me. I have two sets of LPs and a DVD. The songs were just so meaningful and the song “follow me” was great. I didn’t know about 30-40 years ago was written by John Denver. The orchestral work behind it was so beautiful.

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