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Gospel star Mark Lowry is happy to host the Johnny Cash Music Festival

Mark Lowry is looking forward to hosting the fourth annual Johnny Cash Music Festival, starring Country Music Hall of Fame inductees Reba McEntire, Bobby Bare and Loretta Lynn, and taking place once again at Arkansas State University’s Convocation Center in Jonesboro, on Aug. 15.

Mark Lowry
Josh Hailey

And the singer-comedian, long a superstar in the Southern Gospel field, is especially excited to meet McEntire—since he already knows and loves Lynn.

And while he never got to meet Cash, he’s happy to participate in the Cash Fest—his first hosting gig before a country crowd.

“It ought to be fun,” says Lowry. “Country and gospel music are really kissing cousins, and Johnny Cash not only sang gospel, but he was a lot like J.D. Sumner—who didn’t care what people thought about him.”

Sumner, of course, was the late Southern Gospel bass vocalist who sang with everyone from the Blackwood Brothers to his own J.D. Sumner & The Stamps, which toured and recorded with Cash’s Sun Records cohort Elvis Presley.

“He was a great writer and man, who just lived his life and was honest about it,” Lowry says of Cash. “He loved God and admitted he was totally human.”

Lowry is coming to the Cash Fest after completing his second long term with Southern Gospel legend Bill Gaither’s Gaither Vocal Band.

“Oh, dear God! I’m getting so old!” the excitable, laugh-out-loud funnyman declares. “I’m 55, and Gaither thinks he’s 32! But he’s 78—though I always put it a year ahead just to tick him off. He’s going faster, but the closer to the end you get, the faster it goes. He’d never admit it but I think he hears the clock ticking. He’s said he never wants to slow down or retire, well, not me! I don’t want to be there when he hits the wall! I said, ‘Your bucket list is killing me! I gotta go!’”

But leaving the Gaither Vocal fold was also “a financial decision,” notes Lowry, who last year completed a “bucket list” project of his own in Unforgettable Classics, an album of “American Songbook” standards.

"I do better solo than with a group—plus I get to save more!” he says.

But solo or with a group, Lowry plays both sides of his artistry—vocalist and clown. He’s also a successful songwriter, having co-written the Southern Gospel Christmas standard “Mary, Did You Know?” with Gaither Band instrumentalist Buddy Greene.

Offstage, he listens to talk radio.

"I don’t listen to music unless it’s so stunning it takes my breath away,” he says, then relates the new discovery of one such song—pop/country singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman’s poignant “How We Love.”

He recites its opening verse: “Life has taught me this/Every day is new/And if anything is true/All that matters when we’re through/Is how we loved.”

“It’s such a great lyric,” Lowry says. “[Southern Gospel star] Cynthia Clawson came to the house and sang it, and I just fell on the floor! I’m making a new record mainly because of that song, and now I got to try to find nine more that good.”

One, he adds, will be late Southern Gospel great Dottie Rambo’s ‘He Looked Beyond My Fault and Saw My Need.’”

“If it’s a great song, I cover it,” concludes Lowry. “I’m the Johnny Mathis of gospel music!”

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