Everyone’s seen the little crosses on the side of the road. Sometimes flowers surround them. There may be stuffed animals, wedding photos or other mementoes that honor a person who lost his or her life on the spot. Over the years the flowers fade, and the cross deteriorates, but the memorial remains.
Passersby will most likely never know the heartbreaking story, but each person who sees the cross imagines for a minute the pain of such a loss. Perhaps this is the reason “Three Wooden Crosses” was a 2003 No. 1 Country hit for Randy Travis – his 16th – becoming that year’s Country Music Association’s Song of the Year. It spent 34 weeks on the Country charts and was Travis’s only solo recording to make it into Billboard’s Top 40 chart, peaking at No. 31.
“There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway,” the lyrics reveal. “Why there’s not four of them, heaven only knows.”
The song tells the story of four strangers – a farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher – on a bus, three of whom are killed when an 18-wheeler runs a stop sign and plows into them on a dark road. Each was traveling to Mexico for a specific reason.
“One’s headed for vacation, one for higher education, and two of them were searchin’ for lost souls,” the lyrics clarify, observing, “I guess it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you, it’s what you leave behind you when you go.”
The vacationing farmer left his home, harvest, farm, faith and the “love for growin’ things in his young son’s heart.” The teacher “left her wisdom in the minds of lots of children, did her best to give ’em all a better start.”
The preacher and the hooker, who were “looking for lost souls” with very different expected results had a final encounter before one of them died. The preacher shared his Bible with the hooker, asking her, “Can’t you see the promised land?” in one last chance at guiding her to redemption.
“That’s the story that our preacher told last Sunday as he held that blood-stained Bible up for all of us to see,” state the lyrics, leading listeners to believe that the hooker had died in the accident until the preacher concludes, “Bless the farmer and the teacher an’ the preacher who gave this Bible to my mama, who read it to me.”
The song, written by Doug Johnson and Kim Williams, became the first to be released on a Christian record label and reach No. 1 on the Country Charts. It also won a Dove Award from the Gospel Music Association as Country Song of the Year in 2004. Travis told Christian Music Today that the song was symbolic of his own Christian conversion.
“I came from a background that was heavy with drugs and alcohol and arrests,” Travis said. “I’ve heard people speak about how a vision or something hit them, like a light turned on, right then and there. For me, I was into my early twenties, and I went to bed one night and just started reading the Bible. That’s how the slow process of coming to understand that I needed to know more about the Word of God began, and then coming to the point of accepting Christ and water baptism.”
Though the song clearly refers to the memorial crosses left at accident sites, American listeners are also reminded of the three large wooden crosses symbolic of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ funded by Methodist evangelist Reverend Bernard Coffindaffer that dot the landscape in 29 states as well as in the Philippines and Zambia.
The World War II veteran who fought with the Marines on Iwo Jima died a decade before Travis released “Three Wooden Crosses,” but Coffindaffer embodied the song’s message that what a person leaves is more important than what they take. The businessman-turned-preacher spent his entire $3 million fortune erecting 1,842 crosses, a center gold cross flanked by two blue ones.
This copyrighted story by Claudia Johnson was originally published between 2012-2023 in Country Reunion Magazine and Country Reunion News.