Johnny Cash tells simple tales of pilgrims

Published September 1, 2000

IT MAY WELL be that Johnny Cash will soon be going to meet his Lord. If that is the case, he wants his career legacy to be clearly stated.

Cash, 68, is battling Shy-Drager syndrome, a degenerative nerve disease. He is, however, working on a new studio album. As well, a three-CD boxed set exploring the three intertwined themes in his career has just come out.

Entitled Love, God, Murder, the trilogy divides Cash’s nearly 50 years of music making into love songs, songs of faith, and odes to men on the wrong side of the law. The songs show a common, intertwined thread, the notion that the heart of a human is constantly torn between love and loss, between the sacred and the profane, and between salvation and damnation.

[pullquote] Also sold as three separate CDs, the set is not a greatest hits collection. Indeed, each disc contains songs not commonly associated with the Man in Black, placed beside epics like I Walk The Line and Folsom Prison Blues. As well, such rare crossover pop hits like A Boy Named Sue are omitted.

The God CD is a good example. It ranges from gospel songs with smooth rockabilly icing from the 1950s, to stark 1994 and 1998 solo acoustic albums produced by Rick Rubin. The cohesive thread is the conviction of Cash’s simple faith. He sees himself as a redeemed sinner, nothing more, nothing less.

Fans of the man and his genre who share Cash’s fervent faith in the Risen Lord will delight in the 16-song God CD. It is pure Cash. It features his steely baritone as the signature through the years, and several of its songs bear the boom-chicka-boom cadence that is so known in the industry that it is simply called the Johnny Cash backbeat.

Cash expresses his faith in songs about Jesus’ life like The Greatest Cowboy of Them All and the southern gospel call-and-response gem It Was Jesus. He also does so in chronicles of biblical figures like Man In White.

More typical, though, are tales of pilgrims like Cash, or you, or me. He smoothes out the southern gospel in a dated Nashville sound of the late ’50s and early ’60s, but he makes it sincere with his lyrics and vocalizing in his testimony My God Is Real.

Complete with a male quartet, he explains Jesus’ full payment of the penalty of sin in the 1959 piece The Old Account.

A quarter of a century later, his exposition is just as clear and eloquent on the solo acoustic 1994 piece Redemption.

While there are neat covers, including the Carter Family nugget The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea, a simple read of Kris Kristofferson’s Why Me Lord, and a slow shuffle version of the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot among them, Cash’s originals are the cream of this album’s crop.

This is not surprising. As Cash says in the liner notes, “At times, I’m a voice crying in the wilderness, but at times I’m right on the money and I know what I’m talking about.”

Few people have expressed their faith in the Christian religion with such fervour and eloquence, as has Johnny Cash. May God continue to bless and anoint him. Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.


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