There’s something weird about calling a posthumous set of mostly previously released religious music by Johnny Cash a bootleg. A bootleg generally means an illegally distributed or sold recording that was not officially released by the artist. In this case, it seems to mean a record company cashing on Johnny Cash’s good name. He is a legend among rock, country, and pop music fans. Some people will buy almost anything with his name attached to it, and for good reason as he was an amazingly gifted and charismatic artist. People who may not share similar tastes in music often find they share common ground in their love for the “Man in Black”. Still, the gospel side of Cash is a hard sell.
That’s why Columbia, the label famous for once cutting Cash off its roster despite more than 25 years of sales and earning millions of dollars for the company, markets Cash’s Christian music as some kind of underground phenomena. That’s only true in the sense that Columbia was reluctant to release the music in the first place, such as the 12 tracks that begin the second disc of the two-CD set that come from an unnamed and unissued record Cash recorded in 1975.
But griping about major label record company policies now, during the second decade of the twentieth century as they slowly become extinct, seems unnecessary. They have become the victims of their own short-sighted greed. But Cash, his music lives on. And these 51 religious songs reveal the man’s greatness. He delivers the music with feeling and warmth. It’s clear, the music meant much to him, even if it did not result in sales to the general public.
The first disc begins with 20 songs from Cash’s A Believer Sings the Truth from 1979. These include duets with such talented family members as daughters Cindy and Roseanne Cash, son-in-law Rodney Crowell, sister-in-law Anita Carter, and of course his wife, June Carter. Many of the songs are old hymns like “I‘ve Got Jesus in My Soul“, but there are also contemporary tunes, including Billy Joe Shaver’s “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” sung to a Dixieland accompaniment. Four of the other cuts on the disc were from a 1984 album I Believe… and the one other song, “Truth”, is an unreleased track based on a poem boxer Mohammad Ali gave Cash written by Sufi Leader Hazrat Inayat Khan. The album’s title comes from a line in this song, “The soul of truth is God”. Heavy stuff, but it fits in with the general tenor of the collection where all of the material concerns the glory of the Lord.
As mentioned, the second disc begins with 12 tracks from an unreleased album, but why the music was never issued is a mystery. Sure, the Christian themes may seem noncommercial on the face of it as the songs have names like “Sanctified”, “That’s Just Like Jesus”, and such, but Cash has a light touch. He makes tunes like “Keep Me From Blowing Away”, “I Was There When it Happened”, and “Would You Recognize Jesus”-with lines like “Jesus could be riding in a ‘49 Ford” more fun than preachy. These dozen cuts are followed by ten tracks from the 1983 release Johnny Cash—Gospel Singer. The Man in Black sings about “The Old Rugged Cross” and the living Bible versus the stained glass windows of a church in a conversational tone, as if he’s sharing the good news about the Lord with friends. He can make a Jew like me appreciate his beliefs by not, ahem, lording them over another person, but just by sharing his joy. The final four cuts are previously unreleased ones from the same recording sessions. They are of the same caliber and quality of the other ten tracks.
So, calling this a bootleg album is misleading. But despite this, and the religious nature of its contents, these 50 plus tracks are essential listening for any Johnny Cash fans as they showcase his sincere and heartfelt beliefs. Cash was a true believer. This double-CD set redeems his faith in the power of song.