‘Just a Closer Walk With Thee’ – How Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn & Randy Travis Made the Hymn Stronger

by Jim Casey

While the exact origin of gospel hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” is unknown, its lyrics are known all over the world thanks to a number of cross-genre artists who have recorded the dirge over the last 80 years. With its recognizable opening line—I am weak, but thou art strong—the hymn has become a standard at New Orleans jazz funerals.

Popular recordings of the song include Louis Armstrong (1960), Grant Green (1962), Tina Turner (1974), Van Morrison (1991), Harry Connick Jr. (1999), and many more. In fact, the number of country music artists who have recorded the tune reads like a who’s who list from the Hall of Fame. Tennessee Ernie Ford, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Charley Pride, Charlie Daniels, Ronnie Milsap, and more have recorded the song.

Let’s take a look—and listen—to three “strong” recordings by Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, and Randy Travis.

Merle Haggard – 1971

Merle Haggard released his double live gospel album, The Land of Many Churches, in 1971. The 24-track offering included country classics like Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” and Johnny Gimble’s “Guide Me, Lord.” In addition, the album featured traditional hymns such as “Precious Memories,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”

The album was recorded across performances at four venues, including the chapel at San Quentin State Prison. Of course, Merle did a stretch there in the late 1950s.

Loretta Lynn – 1972

Loretta Lynn released her third gospel album, God Bless America Again, in 1972. The 11-song collection featured a mix of well-known songs, including “Just a Walk With Thee” and “Just a Little Talk With Jesus,” as well as new material, such as Lynn-penned songs “Working for the Lord” and “I Pray My Way Out of Trouble.”

It would be 25 years before Loretta released her next gospel album, All Time Gospel Favorites, in 1997. The 26-song double album also featured “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”

Randy Travis – 2003

Beginning with Inspirational Journey in 2000, Randy released a string of gospel/inspirational albums. Rise and Shine (2002), Worship & Faith (2003), Passing Through (2004), Glory Train (2005), and Songs of the Season (2007) followed. While Passing Through veered toward Randy’s traditional country stylings, he really didn’t get back to his mainstream country sound until 2008’s Around the Bend.

Randy’s 2003 album, Worship & Faith, featured a 20-song collection of beloved worship standards, including “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” Randy puts his Hall of Fame baritone pipes on the tune during a live recording at the Orlando Calvary Assembly of God in Orlando, Florida.