"Johnny Cash doesn't sing to the damned, he sings with the damned, and sometimes you feel he might prefer their company," wrote U2 singer Bono in the liner notes of Cash's "God" collection. "Johnny Cash is a righteous dude, and he keeps righteous company with June Carter Cash and the Carter Family, but it's the 'outlaw' in him we love . the 'thief' who would break and enter your heart, and leave you with a nagging question, 'Were you there when they crucified my Lord?'"

For all that, Cash will remain a spiritual enigma, singing about murder and Judgment Day on the same album. "I believe what I say, but that don't necessarily make me right," he told Rolling Stone. "There's nothing hypocritical about it. There is a spiritual side to me that goes real deep, but I confess right up front that I'm the biggest sinner of them all."

Few things divide parents and their kids like popular music. God seems to have gifted Johnny Cash like no other artist to bridge the chasm between age groups. Cash's magnetism spanned time too, remaining a dominating presence in American life over five decades. "Locust and honey . not since John the Baptist has there been a voice like that crying in the wilderness," wrote Bono. "The most male voice in Christendom. Every man knows he is a sissy compared to Johnny Cash."

Cash's lasting appeal may have a lot to do with the songs he wrote for the man on the street-or perhaps more appropriately, the guy hanging out in the alley. His repertoire always included tales of injustice and stories of redemption. He loved prisoners, the working man, the welfare mother-those found on the outskirts. "Those are my heroes: the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the disenfranchised," Cash told a magazine late last year.

When he sang, you could almost taste the hillbilly moonshine, smell the sulfur of a smoking gun, and feel the drops of blood off the thorny crown of a crucified Christ. His momma used to tell him, "God has his hand on you. Never ignore the gift."

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