Album Review of
Cash / Ultimate Gospel

Label: Columbia/Legacy

Genres: Religious, Unknown

Styles: Christian Country, Unknown

Visit Artist/Band Website
Written by Joe Ross
December 20, 2014 - 12:00am EST
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Johnny Cash grew up surrounded by music. The field hands sang rhythmic work songs to make the time go quicker. There was the family’s piano. On Saturday nights, they’d tune their radio dial to the Grand Ole Opry. His mother was a devout member of the Pentecostal Church of God where services incorporated music and fire-and-brimstone preaching. This CD, “Ultimate Gospel,” brings together a compilation of sacred material that can provide insight about the singer and his career on a decade-by-decade basis primarily during the 50s, 60s and 70s. By 1950, Johnny had graduated from high school and one of his first bands was “Landsberg Barbarians,” when he served in the Air Force in Germany.

By 1954, Cash was back stateside in Memphis rehearsing gospel songs to play at parties and church socials. His brother Roy introduced John to two mechanics at the Chevy dealership where they worked. Both Luther Monroe Perkins and Marshall Grant had been with The Dixie Rhythm Ramblers and The Tennessee Three. The guitarist and bassist are prominently heard in the material dating from the 50s and 60s. At Sun Records, Sam Phillips didn’t forbid them to record gospel, but he did encourage the band to focus on country & western. Tracks 3 and 4 (“I Was There When It Happened” and “Belshazzar”) document some of his earliest gospel recorded in Memphis. Both songs were produced by Jack Clement, and “I Was There When It Happened” is taken from one of Cash’s first records, “Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar” put out by Sun Records in 1957. “That’s Enough” is a strong and moving selection from his 1958 record. 

In 1958, Cash’s success led to his signing with Columbia Records. With a simple handshake, producer Don Law entered the picture. Tracks 5-10 and 14-16 on “Ultimate Gospel” were originally produced by Law (and Frank Jones on the latter three) and released on six different albums (on Columbia) between 1958-64. At the time, there were many hits coming out of studios like Bradley's Barn in Nashville. For example, “That’s Enough” was taken from the 1958 LP (Johnny’s first for Columbia) called “The Fabulous Johnny Cash.” That record eventually charted at #19. The May, 1959 record “Hymns By Johnny Cash” was his second Columbia LP. We hear three songs on this collection (It Was Jesus, The Old Account, Swing Low Sweet Chariot). Johnny once said it was “the album he came to Columbia to record,” due to Sam Phillips’ reluctance to allow him to record much gospel material at Sun. By 1960, we hear a regular member of Johnny’s band (drummer W.S. ‘Fluke’ Holland) appear in the musical mix. You may recall that The Carter Family joined Johnny’s touring show in the 60s, and their backing vocals are heard in selections like “He Turned The Water Into Wine,” “Troublesome Waters,” and the others throughout the 70s. I’ve always loved their arrangement and classic presentation of “There'll Be Peace In the Valley For Me” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” 

While Cash had many popular country and even progressive folk hits, he’d also regularly revisit his gospel roots. Two offerings (“Daddy Sang Bass” and He Turned The Water Into Wine”) are sampled from Cash’s 1968 concept record, “The Holy Land,” with its inspirational songs and narrative based on a trip to Israel with June Carter. Carl Perkins’ “Daddy Sang Bass” was a #1 hit and the song’s lyrics mention “little brother” Jack Cash who died tragically in an electric saw accident. In 1969, Luther Perkins also passed away (in a fire), and Carl Perkins replaced him in the band. Johnny’s duets with June Carter Cash are legendary, and we are treated to a 1976 rendition of “Far Side Banks of Jordan” here. 

Johnny Cash has had many secular hits over the years. The 1980 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee also recorded a considerable amount of favorite gospel numbers during his days. Cash himself experienced poverty and later battled drug addiction, and he realized the need for a relationship with God. These songs had special meaning for him. I’m surprised they didn’t include the song, “I Call Him,” which I always considereds one of his most personally introspective pleas. Spanning over an hour, this set scratches the surface of his sacred music legacy. For those who love classic country gospel music, this album evokes a strong feeling of being close to God. The spiritual strength and comfort of these magnificent songs from yesteryear give us dear and cherished memories. They are tenderly sung with joy by Johnny Cash. Three of the cuts are previously unreleased. They include My Ship Will Sail (1974), How Great Thou Art (1981), and It Is No Secret (What God Can Do) (1981). 

All songs on the CD: 1. Here Was A Man, 2. The Preacher Said "Jesus Said", 3. I Was There When It Happened, 4. Belshazzar, 5. That's Enough, 6. It Was Jesus, 7. The Old Account 8. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 9. Children Go Where I Send Thee, 10. The Great Speckle Bird 11. He'll Understand and Say Well Done, 12. How Great Thou Art, 13. It Is No Secret (What God Can Do), 14. He Turned The Water Into Wine, 15. Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord), 16. Troublesome Waters, 17. My Ship Will Sail, 18. When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder, 19. In The Sweet By And By, 20. Far Side Banks of Jordan, 21. (There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me), 22. Oh Come, Angel Band, 23. Amazing Grace, 24. Daddy Sang Bass 

We should be thankful for this wonderful compilation of songs of the spirit because making a joyous noise unto the Lord is an everlasting thing. It’s nice to know that such songs, heartwarming in their simplicity, remain popular in the hearts of good people everywhere. Cash recorded many other sacred songs, and I plan to look for a subsequent volume of such material. Perhaps they’ll reissue “We’ll Meet Again,” the lyrics of which were printed in Cash’s funeral program. (Joe Ross)