‘Why Me, Lord?’: How Johnny Cash, George Jones & Merle Haggard Made the Kristofferson Hymn So Soulful

by Jim Casey

It’s hard to believe that Country Music Hall of Fame member Kris Kristofferson scored only one No. 1 single as a solo artist. But, it’s true. While many of his works as a songwriter found a home at No. 1—including “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” (Johnny Cash), “Me & Bobby McGee” (Janis Joplin), and more—Kris scored his only No. 1 hit as a solo artist when “Why Me, Lord?” topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart on July 7, 1973. Kris penned and recorded the song for his 1972 album, Jesus Was a Capricorn.

“I had a profound religious experience [at Jimmie Snow’s church], something that had never happen to me before,” said Kris Kristofferson in an interview with Ralph Emery. “And ‘Why Me’ came out of it. Everybody was kneeling down and Jimmie said something like, ‘If anybody’s lost, please raise their hand.’ I was kneeling there. I don’t go to church a lot. And the notion of raising my hand was out of the question. I thought, ‘I can’t imagine who’s doing this.’ And all of the sudden I felt my hand going up. I was hoping nobody else was looking.

“And then he said, ‘If anybody is ready to accept Jesus . . . come down to the front of the church.’ I thought that would never happen. And I found myself getting up and walking down with all these people. I don’t really know what he said to me. He said something to me like, ‘Are you ready to accept Jesus Christ in your life?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I didn’t know what I was doing there. I can’t even remember what he was saying. But whatever it was was such a release for me that I found myself weeping in public. I felt this forgiveness that I didn’t even know I even needed.”

The deeply personal country/gospel hymn resonated with both audiences and artists.

Let’s take a look at—and listen to—three versions of “Why Me, Lord?” by George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash.

1. George Jones

George Jones recorded “Why Me, Lord?” on his 1974 album, In a Gospel Way. If you crunch the numbers, that was right in the midst of George’s hell-raising days.

Nonetheless, George had a fondness for the gospel music he was raised on. And he could always croon in the studio, regardless of what was going on outside of it. The 11-track collection also featured renditions of “Amazing Grace,” “Mama’s Hands,” and more.

2. Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard released a double-live gospel album, The Land of Many Churches, in 1971. The 24-track offering included both country classics (Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light”) and traditional hymns (“Amazing Grace,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”).

But the Hag dedicated his 1981 gospel album, Songs for the Mama That Tried, to his mother, Flossie, who was 79 years old when she posed with Merle for the album cover. The 11-song collection featured Merle singing “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Why Me, Lord?” and more.

3. Johnny Cash

After a somewhat fallow period in the 1980s as a solo artist, Johnny Cash reignited his career with his 81st album, American Recordings, in 1994. Produced by Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin, the album featured Cash performing stripped-back versions of “Tennessee Stud,” “Delia’s Gone,” “Why Me, Lord?” and more.

Cash teamed with Rubin for six albums in the American series, including four released during his lifetime.