Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Sure, we all think Johnny Cash was the coolest thing going, and his classic Sun records, his late-life renewal with Rick Rubin, and his prison albums are all as hip as can be.  But for long years, Cash was out of favour, not just among the general music fans, but even from mainstream country.  Much of this time, say the mid-70's through the 80's, he couldn't buy a hit.  As for the rock audience, Cash was far too square.  One of the main reasons was that after Folsom Prison Blues and I Walk The Line, he'd trot out a gospel number, in concert or on TV, complete with corny back-up vocals from the Carter Family and the Statlers, and that rebel image would melt away.  His friendship with Billy Graham and appearances on those Crusade shows didn't help.  Gospel and contemporary Christian numbers didn't sit well with most music buyers.

But Cash would always return to religious songs, and in fact always saw himself in that light, even in the midst of his rebellious, pill-popping days.  Such was the complexity of his character, The Man In Black had someone watching his back, and he wanted to sing about that, too.  Like Elvis, his favourite music was found in the hymnal.

The fourth installment of the Bootleg series focuses entirely on his religious output, but unfortunately only touches on the period from 1975 to 1982, and sessions for three albums.  Most of the songs are rare as can be now, the albums barely distributed and long out-of-print, so that fits the Bootleg concept of getting rare Cash songs out to the public today.  But sadly, a full half of this material, from 1979 sessions, is substandard.  Comprising the first disc of the set, the songs are mired in sickly production and horrible backing vocals, with guilt going equally to producer Cowboy Jack Clement, the chorale of singers including almost every Carter and Cash to be found, and Johnny himself, who wrote many of the tracks.  Even when he goes for some classics, such as the great Gospel singers Dorothy Love Coates and Rosetta Tharpe, the sappy arrangements take the life out of the music.  White Southern Gospel can be dreary, cliched stuff.

Disc two is much better, with the 1975 sessions produced in the classic Cash boom-chicka-boom style, the song selection much sharper.  The 1982 songs are even better, thanks to then son-in-law Marty Stuart's smart, stripped-down work.  It includes the Cash favourite Belshazzar, a song he would record a few times, including  with Rubin, one of the better Bible stories he wrote.  There are good story songs, albeit with the obvious moral lessons that come with the territory.

Gospel is always going to be a tough sell, especially when the quality is so hit-and-miss.  I'd argue a much better set could have been presented by cherry-picking some other time periods and dumping the worst of the 1979 set.  This would give people a much better idea of what Cash could do when the spirit hit him, because most of the people who buy this are going to be Johnny fans, not Gospel fans.

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