Unless you're a fan of country music or born in the south, it's difficult to understand the importance of such an icon as Johnny Cash. Watching the Hollywood production of his rise to fame in the music world, Walk The Line, which debuted in theaters two years ago, gave me some insight into this legendary man, although it only subtly touched on his spirituality. It's pretty well known that Cash hit rough spots in his life (something the film focused most on), but as he overcame great obstacles, one thing remained constant - his faith in Christ. Before he took America by storm in the rock and country music scenes, Cash tried making it as a Gospel singer, but while that didn't work out, Johnny still managed to record volumes of Gospel songs throughout his career. Columbia / Legacy's collection Cash: Ultimate Gospel is a compilation of recordings between 1957 to 1981, all having one time or another being released on one of Cash's albums, with the exception of three previously unreleased recordings exclusive to Cash: Ultimate Gospel.
Diehard Cash fans will be the greatest appreciators of this particular project. However, casual fans or even new listeners altogether whose interests were piqued upon seeing the recent film, may appreciate such a collection of history. Ultimate Gospel, a particularly bold choice in titling, opens with a live spoken word track from 1970, entitled "Here Was A Man." While not, by any means, a good example of Cash's musical style, it's actually a fine way to set the tone for the album, as Cash cites inspirational words about Jesus' character and place in history. The album jumps forward to 1971 with Cash's own "The Preacher Said 'Jesus Said'," a country track that mixes the iconic vocalist's spiritual musings with different messages spoken by Reverend Billy Graham. "I Was There When It Happened," recorded in 1957, is possibly one of the more recognizable Cash covers on the project as it appeared in Walk The Line in a crucial sequence. The brief Gospel track is classic from start to finish and a wonderful addition to Ultimate Gospel. "Belshazzar" (1957) is another song with significance in Cash's life as it was the first song he played for the Sun Records exec who then rejected him because Gospel music couldn't "sell" at the time. The scripture-inspired Cash original is a fine fit here, and is followed by the lighthearted "That's Enough" and the slightly silly Cash-penned "It Was Jesus." A string of traditionals, which are some of Johnny's best, follows including "The Old Account," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "The Great Speckle Bird," and "He'll Understand And Say Well Done."
The first of the three exclusives featured on Cash: Ultimate Gospel is "How Great Thou Art," originally recorded in February of 1981 and mixed for the first time last summer. While most of the tracks on Ultimate Gospel are under three minutes in length, "How Great Thou Art" is over five minutes, and nearly half of the song is instrumental before Cash's deep vocals make an appearance. While this take on the famous hymn features a slightly cheesy and tedious drum track, the recording is a wonderful addition to this collection, and a reminder of God's redemption and faithfulness. "It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)" is the second previously unreleased recording, also from the same 1981 session and is a nice little piano-led piece. The soulful highlight "He Turned The Water Into Wine" (1968) follows, as does a string of cuts that team the Man In Black with The Carter Family, including "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)," "Troublesome Waters," "(There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)," and "When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder." A rousing take on "In The Sweet By And By" precedes the third and final previously unreleased track, "My Ship Will Sail," a little Gospel tune originally recorded in 1974. "Fair Side Banks Of Jordan" teams Cash with June Carter Cash in this 1976 recording, serving as the only duet between the famous husband/wife duo on this collection. The expansive compilation concludes with a memorable rendition of "Amazing Grace," the goofy but upbeat and positive "Daddy Sang Bass," and ending with a boisterous take on the traditional "Children Go Where I Send Thee."
Containing twenty four songs representing four decades of music from one truly iconic artist, Cash: Ultimate Gospel is a worthy compilation of Gospel songs that pays tribute to the legacy of Johnny Cash. A brief history of Cash's love for Gospel is included in the disc's booklet, along with a personal endorsement from renowned preacher Bill Graham, completes this collection as being a quality production to honor Cash. Fans won't want to miss the exclusives included here while those who are serious about expanding their knowledge of this incredible musician will want to look into Cash: Ultimate Gospel.- Review date: 4/8/07, written by John DiBiase
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