I’ve always said that if Johnny Cash were God, it would be so much easier to believe. Of course, if the Man in Black were alive to hear that, he’d probably just chuckle, shrug it off, and speak of his own strong faith and conviction of belief without passing judgment.
Part of what made Johnny Cash such a beloved figure across the vast musical landscape was that in listening to his music, you felt like you knew the man. The sometimes monotone quality of his rich baritone could be overlooked because of the earnest sincerity that colored his timbre. Beyond that, as a celebrity figure, there was a refreshing lack of hypocrisy that defined Cash. Unlike many stars who screw up, join the Religion of the Month Club, screw up again, lather, rinse, and repeat; Johnny Cash himself dealt with loss, tragedy, and serious addiction in his life before turning his life around. Rather than using faith as a crutch, Cash’s beliefs were incorporated into his life. A rare exception, especially in the sphere of celebrity, he lived his life by example without being judgmental, often playing a cross-genre and cross-generational mentor in the last decade or so of his life.
Since Cash’s death in 2003, there seems to be a drive towards capitalizing on the mania that usually results when a star of his caliber passes. From bio-pics to career retrospective box sets to books, no stone seems to be left unturned in delivering as much Johnny Cash for the fans’ cash. At this rate, the Man in Black may find himself joining the likes of Elvis Presley and Tupac Shakur as the most prolific posthumous artist to have new recordings released after his death.
The latest offering in this vein, Cash: Ultimate Gospel contains religious tracks spanning from 1957 to 1981. Full of simple songs made beautiful by lovely harmonies, the album showcases Cash’s deep, lower register as the centerpiece backed on many tracks by the sweet sopranos of the Carter Family singers.
While at the time of his death, Cash was an artist on Rick Rubin’s American label, Cash: Ultimate Gospel is released via Sony. Sony, who had merged with Cash’s old label, Columbia, had acquired tapes from that period of his career, as well as his earliest material from Sun Records. The result is a strong, country-gospel collection that includes some previously unreleased tracks as well as a few spiritual gems from Cash’s early days with Sun.
The selections are well-chosen (for the most part) and cover a wide swath of the gospel music aspect of Cash’s career. The disc opens up with a stirring, live rendition of “Here Was a Man” that borders on spoken-word and starts the album on a powerful note with Cash’s voice booming out from what could pass as a pulpit.
In spite of the religious nature of the album’s content, Cash: Ultimate Gospel is far from somber. Several pleasant surprises are scattered throughout. “The Great Speckle Bird” features a heady dose of honky tonk piano, while another early Cash original, “Belshazzar”, applies the signature “freight train” sound of Cash and the Tennessee Two to gospel music on a yarn about a Biblical King of Babylon. Neither of these tracks would get you kicked out of church, yet provide a solid dose of uptempo music to the usual liturgical fare.
The self-penned “He Turned the Water Into Wine” becomes an all-star jam with both the Carter Family and the Statler Brothers on backup vocals, and featuring the legendary Carl Perkins on guitar.
Perkins makes another appearance on the compilation, this time as a songwriter on the classic “Daddy Sang Bass”. The song’s lyrics oddly seem to parallel Cash’s Depression-era childhood which was marred by the death of his beloved brother: “Just poor people / That’s all we were / Trying to make a living / Out of black land dirt /… Now little brother / Has done gone on / But I’ll rejoin him / In a song.”
While the lively arrangements throughout are refreshing, there are several that sound dated. “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” is peppered with perky, yet tinny horns that sound more at home on the opening credits of a ‘70s ABC Movie of the Week than a gospel album. Similarly, “Children Go Where I Send Thee” is a peppy, upbeat number, but doesn’t have the timelessness of many of the disc’s other tracks owing to its passé-sounding composition.
On the other hand, Cash: Ultimate Gospel‘s previously unreleased tracks make the album worth purchasing for the Cash completist. The best of the three unreleased pieces, “My Ship Will Sail” is not necessarily pinned down to being a religious song, but more secularly inspirational. song moving forward and keeping “I will walk this road awhile / I will walk it with a smile / And I will take it in my stride / Someday I’ll be satisfied”.
Admittedly, there is something very comforting about hearing Johnny Cash’s voice from beyond the grave. If gospel is your thing, given the album’s hopeful and positive tone, Cash: Ultimate Gospel doesn’t disappoint. For more secular-minded fans of Johnny Cash, it still remains an uplifting, welcoming disc that showcases just one facet of a gifted performer’s repertoire.