Seems no matter what live show one attends these days, somebody’s covering Johnny Cash. Usually it’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” which by now has more lives and versions than David Allan Coe’s “Take This Job and Shove It.” Considering the latter made it all the way to the Dead Kennedys, that’s a mouthful. But punk bands are all over Cash these days as well, and it’s simply considered cool to have something from that well in your set list. Of course it is J.R. Cash we’re talking about here, and it is in fact cool to be associated with anything from one of the truly great talents of our time. But excepting the performances in “Walk the Line,” nobody but Social Distortion has done Cash well since, well, Cash.
So in a period where everybody who’s got a guitar is wailing out something the Man in Black wrote, it’s fitting that Columbia has re-released a collection of gospel recordings Johnny made throughout his career. From “Belshazzar,” the cut Sam Phillips turned down as unpalatable for sales, through tracks such as “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)” recorded in 1981 and mixed for this release in 2006, it’s an insightful look at the course of Johnny’s life and spiritual slugfest with the Almighty. This is the side of Cash that the masses forget, and it’s the side that kept the man going – albeit for a short time – after June went on ahead.
We tend to lose in time’s swirling mists the fact that throughout his career Johnny periodically released gospel records or included a track or two on an album. He was never preachy about it – hell, with his track record, how could he be? – but at his core John Cash was a Christian man. As he once said to an acquaintance, who relayed the conversation in this record’s liner notes, “I’m a Christian. I guess I might be a C-minus Christian but I am one. I think God leaves it up to me though for the most part to handle my own affairs. He puts walking-shoes on my prayers to make me do it myself.'” Not an uncommon sentiment from the hardscrabble son of an Arkansas farmer. Anyone who has spent time in those parts, or attended old country churches anywhere in this land, understands where Johnny was coming from.
The songs chosen for inclusion here reflect both Cash’s personal journey and a significant cross-section of the gospel music that generations of Americans sang faithfully as Sunday morning came on down. If there’s a lesson to be had in the nostalgia here invoked, it may be that even an outlaw sometimes needs something to believe in. Whatever the outcome, however, listening to Johnny Cash sing “How Great Thou Art” in quiet, respectful and understated tones tells you more about the man than any history lesson or movie ever could. It was here, in the stillness and sanctity of faith, that Cash found his strength. His muse was a gift that he shared with the world. His strength came through in that, of course, but his inner self, his being, was a gift he shared with June. The rest of us could learn from that. And with this collection of songs, regardless of individual faith, we are afforded the opportunity to look into the well of Johnny’s strength and consider, maybe for the first time, just what it is that makes an outlaw real.
RIP, Johnny. And thanks.
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Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas.
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