Johnny Cash was a man of divisions. A man, as he famously sang, who walked the line.
As thin as that line appeared to be at times, it was Cash's Christian faith that served as the balance in his life. "My arms are too short to box with God," Cash once wrote.
As balancing as the Spirit was to Cash the man, spirituals served as the ballast to Cash's music, and his love of gospel is chronicled in the latest of Cash posthumous releases, Bootleg Volume IV: The Soul of Truth.
The Man in Black's son, J.R. Cash, puts it bluntly in the liner notes of the new release: "Without gospel music, there never would have been a Johnny Cash."
From his childhood, growing up and singing in his church in Arkansas, to the last records he worked on with producer Rick Rubin, gospel lived throughout Cash's music and deeds. When he first auditioned for Sam Phillips of Sun Records in 1955, he did so as a gospel singer. And while Phillips shared Cash's love of church music, they agreed it was too expensive an investment to make in the unknown singer.
It would, of course, prove to be a wise financial decision for both men. Cash would become the best-selling artist in the world at one point, singing murder ballads and road songs, songs of sin and death. Through it all, there was the gospel music.
"Dad would always go back to the spirituals," writes his son. "Any time he could sing one he took a chance, even if it meant alienating a casual listener or a fan."
Bootleg Volume IV faith-based, but pure Cash
The latest in "The Bootleg Series" – an ongoing collection issued by Sony that mines the vast, but hidden or overlooked Cash discography – combines a previously released Cash album, 1979's A Believer Sings The Truth, and a second disc made up of a kaleidoscope of tracks, most from an unreleased and unnamed album recorded at The House of Cash in Tennessee.
While the songs will indeed speak to the faithful, the music is pure Cash, easily enjoyable by people without religious affiliation. Standouts here include Cash's cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Strange Things Happening Every Day" with its chugging tuba baseline, Johnny B. Goode guitar line and lyrics preaching the social gospel: "If you're thinking of your own career/ don't forget about the hungry over there./ We say we want peace but we're killing each other like bees." The dramatic "Truth" has Cash speaking over a piano melody with one foot in the church, another in a saloon. The story of the song begins with Muhammad Ali, who presented the poem to Cash when they met. While it was believed that Ali had written the poem, Gregg Geller, Bootleg IV's producer, did some fact-checking and explains in the liner notes of the package how the words were written by Hazrat Inayat Khan, a teacher of Universal Sufism.
The album is a well curated collection, a fluid ode by Cash to his creator. "This is my proudest work," Cash wrote in the original liner notes to A Believer Sings..., "and I would like to dedicate this album to my mother, Mrs. Ray Cash, who inspired me at the age of seventeen… 'God's got his hand on you, son. Keep on singing.'"
To understand Johnny Cash is to understand the importance of spirituals, and spirituality, in his well documented life. And despite the secular musical path that he took after that meeting with Phillips, it's clear that Cash ultimately achieved his goal of becoming a gospel singer. Fitting then, that these beloved gospel songs have been resurrected and will play on, even after his death.
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