“John, let’s do a shot for the warden,” photographer Jim Marshall reportedly implored Johnny Cash during the singer’s 1969 performance at San Quentin Prison. Cash’s snarling response, with his middle finger in air, made for one of the most famous music photographs of all time. Cropping up on T-shirts, posters and the like, Marshall captured the outlaw side of Johnny Cash like no photographer before or since. Though it might have, indeed, been worth a thousand words, the image still only revealed part of the story of John R. Cash. At the foundation of Cash’s life and music-making was his spiritual fervor, ingrained in him from an early age. His devotion to gospel music stayed with him throughout his career, from one of his earliest albums (1959’s Hymns with Johnny Cash) through one of his very last (2003’s posthumous My Mother’s Hymn Book). Late in life, The Man in Black even recorded the entire New Testament as a spoken-word multi-CD set. Columbia/Legacy’s fourth installment of Cash’s Bootleg Series is entirely devoted to this aspect of the Cash canon, and as such, The Soul of Truth (88697 98538 2, 2012) may be the most raw, personal entry in the series yet.
The Bootleg Series launched in 2006 with Personal File’s 49 previously unissued home-recorded songs, belatedly resuming four years later with From Memphis to Hollywood. Its 57 rare tracks included 16 wholly unreleased titles spanning the period of 1954-1969. 2011’s Live Around the World focused solely on live recordings, with 39 of 51 tracks previously unreleased. This fourth volume takes a different approach, reissuing three long out-of-print albums in full and adding appropriate outtakes and rare, related material.
Bootleg IV’s first disc contains the twenty tracks recorded for Cachet Records’ 1979 double album A Believer Sings the Truth. (Half of its songs were reprised under the same name in 1982 on Priority Records, Columbia’s boutique gospel imprint.) Arrival Records’ 1984 LP I Believe… also drew on tracks from A Believer, adding four more recordings. Those four songs are now appended to the original twenty. The final cut on the first disc gives the new compilation its title. “Truth” is believed to have been based on a poem written by The Greatest, Muhammad Ali. He presented the poem to Cash, who set it to music but never released the track. The poem was, in fact, written by Sufi leader Hazrat Inayat Khan and contains the pivotal line, “The soul of truth is God.” It makes its debut here.
The second disc starts off with twelve tracks recorded in 1975 for an untitled LP. Two of these tracks have appeared on compilations over the past five years, but the album was never released until now in its intended form. (It may have been shelved because Cash already had released one gospel album in 1975, Sings Precious Memories.) Disc 2 continues with the ten tracks from Word Records’ 1986 release Believe in Him, but in their original sequence as selected for Priority’s withdrawn 1983 release Gospel Singer. Four previously unissued outtakes from the same sessions complete this disc.
A Believer Sings the Truth (1979) is this set’s rightful centerpiece. A lengthy, sprawling double album that encompasses many musical styles, it features a large group of musicians including, of course, Bob Wootton, Marshall Grant and W.S. “Fluke” Holland as well as Jack Clement, The Carter Family and the 21st Century Singers. The great majority of the songs here are originals, either by Cash or others, rather than adaptations of traditional religious standards. Themes of family, heritage and America run side by side with spirituality in Cash’s world. In “Lay Me Down in Dixie,” a duet with daughter Cindy Cash, Johnny and Cindy wax rhapsodic about the sound of a southern drawl! Like his secular songs, these tracks reflect the artist’s core values. As Cash’s son John Carter Cash admits in the liner notes, “[he] had never stopped professing or singing about his faith, but he had wandered away from it” in the throes of pill addiction in 1967. At that time and for the rest of his life, he found the strength to express those values in music even during the periods when life’s temptations kept him from embracing them in practice.
We pick up after the jump!
“Wings in the Morning,” a Cash original, has mariachi brass recalling “Ring of Fire,” and there’s even a train song with the familiar Cash rhythm in the form of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “This Train is Bound for Glory.” Cash introduces it with “We’re gonna ride the Bible train now!” and few would decline his invitation to board. There’s no shortage of jaunty melodies, whether the boogie-woogie of “(I’ve Got Jesus and) That’s Enough” or the accurately-named “Gospel Boogie.” The hoedown stomp of “Jesus in My Soul” is bolstered by flavorful horns. Cash’s well-documented troubles keep him from sounding too pious on these recordings, many of which have a good-time feel . The man exuded honesty whenever he sang, and these very personal expressions of faith are no exception.
Quieter moments are plentiful, too. The young Rosanne Cash harmonizes with her father on 1979’s “When He Comes” and Rosanne’s then-husband Rodney Crowell lends subtle support to W.J. Gaither’s “He Touched Me.” The gentle ballad “O, Come, Angel Band” is enhanced by the presence of the gospel choir, and they’re particularly soulful on “Strange Things Are Happening Every Day” alongside bleating horns and even electric guitar. There’s none of the gloss associated with the genre now known as “contemporary Christian.” These songs are fully-produced yet still possessing raw power. Even the previously unreleased adaptation of the Hazrat Inayat Khan poem “Truth” is far from heavy-handed, with Cash reciting it over the piano-driven track and vocal harmony: “The sign of the truth is Christ, the soul of truth is God.”
The songs of the long-lost 1975 Hendersonville sessions cover similar territory, juxtaposing good-time, twangy country gospel with lush balladry. This time, however, a 13-strong string section makes pivotal appearances on those ballads such as Marijohn Wilkin’s “Back in the Fold.” Stalwart session man Bergen White contributed piano while The Oak Ridge Boys provided backing vocals. The best track might just be “Sanctified,” which was first aired on Legacy’s Ultimate Gospel compilation. Cash can’t help but sound knowingly ironic on this fun musical dialogue in which he musically resists temptation from a variety of voices. It’s hard to believe this rollicking track sat in a vault until 2007! There’s a sweet, down-home feel on “I Was There When It Happened,” and a boom-chicka-boom duet with June Carter Cash on “The Far Banks of Jordan.”
Wootton and Holland joined Cash for the 1982 Nashville sessions intended for the Gospel Singer LP; by this point, Marshall Grant had acrimoniously departed the band. Pete Drake (steel guitar), Jerry Douglas (dobro), David Briggs and Bobby Whitlock (keyboards), Earle Pool Ball and Hargus “Pig” Robbins (piano) and the Cathedral Quartet (backing vocals) all made a distinct impression on the album’s tracks. Cash revisited his own “Belshazzar,” and sounds passionate sharing “The Old Rugged Cross” with Jessi Colter.
Though such a style is perhaps intrinsic to the material, Cash is humble and tender on these songs, turning in a heartfelt vocal on Mark R. Germino’s “God Ain’t No Stained Glass Window” (“There’s so much I don’t know/I don’t understand why the summer’s so hot/I don’t understand why an apple core rots/And I have no idea when I’ll see a rainbow/But there’s one thing I do know/I know that God ain’t no stained glass window…”).
He’s equally joyous on “Over There” (“I believe we’ll be together/When we reach the other side!”), as strong an expression of his resolute faith as on any of these songs. In his own “What is Man,” the singer ponders his place in the grand design to the Creator, asking “What is man? What has he done? What is man that you would care?” Rodney Crowell’s “Wildwood in the Pines” reaffirmed the younger Crowell’s place in the traditional country pantheon that has long seen artists exploring both their secular and spiritual muses. Crowell’s grand thoughts (“I believe that Jesus loves me/I can feel it in my soul”) are expressed simply and directly.
Bootleg IV: The Soul of Truth marks the first release of Columbia/Legacy’s Cash 80 birthday program; the singer would have reached that birthday milestone this past February 26. Vic Anesini has remastered each track for splendid sound, and essays are provided by John Carter Cash and producer Gregg Geller. This release is an auspicious start for sure, illuminating an aspect of the artist that’s often overlooked in favor of his outlaw persona. And the artist likely understood why the image of the aggressive loner “Man in Black” had come to define him to many. Johnny Cash knew all too well what it meant to simply be human, and he was never afraid of expressing that condition in song, with all its manifold contradictions.
Bootleg IV: The Soul of Truth can be ordered here!