Ultimate Gospel Label: Columbia/Legacy
The late Johnny Cash had such a memorable voice and such tremendous delivery that he could pretty much recite random names and numbers out of the phone book and still produce a compelling performance that you’d want to hear over and over again, and this collection of his best gospel recordings is proof of that. That’s not to suggest that gospel music is such an awful chore to listen to, but let’s be honest: we’re not all subscribers to the same religious tenets. It’s therefore a testament to Cash’s ability to turn in a great performance, no matter what the material, that one can recommend this compilation even to those who might not share in the Man in Black’s spiritual beliefs. (Of course, anyone who’s seen “Walk the Line” knows that Cash and his longtime bandmates, Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, had started heading down the gospel road before Sam Phillips at Sun Records assured him that there was no money to be made in playing that kind of music.)
It should be noted that Greg Geller, the producer of this set, apparently put together the running order with one intention: to weed out the heathen right from the start. The opening track, “Here Was a Man,” is nothing more than Cash intoning the story of Jesus Christ in front of an audience with a sweeping orchestral score playing behind him, and it’s followed by “The Preacher Said, ‘Jesus Said,’” which features sporadic guest appearances from Reverend Billy Graham. Not that the other songs aren’t full of religious sentiments, but those first two tracks have a particularly heavy-handed feel; they might’ve been better served as a grand conclusion to the proceedings rather than as the introduction to the disc.
The majority of Ultimate Gospels contents have been released elsewhere, though we do get a few heretofore-unheard tracks, including a version of “How Great Thou Art” (with Marty Stuart on guitar) and a particular nice take on “My Ship Will Sail.” (A version of the latter popped up on 1986’s Johnny Cash is Coming to Town, but this particular rendition was recorded back in ’74.) The date of Cash’s various performances range from 1956 to 1981, though the later songs tend to suffer from overproduction. The simpler material is the best, where it’s just the Tennessee Three playing their hearts out; in particular, “Belshazzar,” recorded in 1957 but released in 1964 on The Original Sun Sound, is driven by Marshall Grant’s bass just as solidly as “I Walk The Line.” There are, however, moments where June really shines, as she does with her haunting vocal contributions on “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord),” or on the duet, “Far Side Banks of Jordan.”
“Daddy Sang Bass” is one of the highlights of the album; the song, which weaves in and out of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” as it progresses, features lead vocals from Johnny and June, plus backing vocals from the Carter Family and the Statler Brothers. You can’t beat a cast like that. (Perkins also pops up on “He Turned the Water into Wine.”) There are, of course, countless moments of Cash bliss, including his versions of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me),” and the immortal “Amazing Grace.” Some tracks, meanwhile, are such old-school country standards that you almost forget theyre gospel in origin, like “The Great Speckle Bird” and “The Old Account.”
You don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy Ultimate Gospel. If you’re a Johnny Cash fan who’s got at least a little bit of tolerance for other people’s religions, you’ll still find this to be a solid collection of a side of his work that’s too often ignored by the masses.