Having recently been on tour, on Oct. 7, 1975, Johnny Cash gathered a group of musicians in his home studio to record some gospel music. It would take almost forty years for any of the material to be released, but what is now available makes for an interesting listen.
The October 7th sessions featured seven songs:
- Don’t Give Up on Me – a personal a deeply emotional prayer in which Johnny sings “I’m still not the man that you want me to be, so please Lord, don’t give up on me”
- What on Earth Will You Do (For Heaven’s Sake) – Johnny recorded this number many times during the seventies so it was obviously an important work for him. A spoken word introduction reveals this is not intended to be a judgmental or critical number, but rather is intended more for himself than anyone else.
- I Was There When it Happened – he returns to this number he recorded with Sun Records in a piano-led southern gospel style
- That’s Just Like Jesus – a soft ballad in waltz time.
- Over the Next Hill We’ll Be Home – a new Johnny-written lyric to the same melody as What on Earth
- Keep me From Blowing Away – a slow tune about human weakness and dependency on God for strength.
- Our Little Home Town – The most upbeat of the tunes, with a classic gospel beat unusual for Cash, this one’s a condemnation of big city evils.
Lyrically it’s an interesting bunch of tunes because they are largely written by Johnny and they reflect a deep humility. He speaks of himself as weak and deeply in need of God’s grace. Musically, this is quite the departure for Johnny. Notable in the musicians are the Oak Ridge Boys who provide southern gospel quartet harmonies; Earl Poole Ball, a vigorous gospel piano player, who would soon become a fixture in Johnny’s band; and steel guitar player Pete Wade, here playing guitar, offering weepy guitar bends left, right and centre that are strikingly different from Bob Wootton’s simple, clean playing.
Three more songs were recorded on October 21st, with many of the same musicians, but lacking guitarist Pete Wade:
- Back in the Fold: A great ballad of redemption.
- Look unto the East: A reflective tune about Jesus’ death.
- An unissued take of the Carter Family classic Waiting on the Far Side Banks of Jordan.
Later in the month, Bob Wootton and a few others would overdub some more instrumental parts, but a travesty occurred on November 4th. Five of the tracks – That’s Just Like Jesus, Over the Next Hill, Keep Me from Blowing Away, Back in the Fold, and Look Unto the East – were drenched with strings. Despite classic harmonica player Charlie McCoy adding a few parts, even he can save the tunes from absolute treacle. What was starting to be a loose, relaxed and well-played album, with sincere, strong vocals from Cash, turned into an overproduced mess, just like his recent Precious Memories album.
In December, Johnny and June went back with the Oak Ridge Boys, son-in-law Jack Routh, Pete Wade, Marshall Grant, WS Holland and a few others and recorded a few more tunes:
- Sanctified: a fun gospel number with some questionable works-based theology
- Would You Recognize Jesus: A catchy, new Statler Brothers tune (they would release their own version in 1976) with a clear message: “If you’ve never fed the hungry given clothes to the poor, if you’ve never helped a stranger who came knocking on your door… well, if you ain’t helping none of these, then you ain’t helping him,” that unfortunately devolves into a schmaltzy joke about Jesus “riding in a ’49 Ford”.
- Another take of Waiting on the Far Side Banks of Jordan that shines thanks to June’s vocal at Wade’s guitar licks
Cash had already released five albums in 1975, a gospel album in 1974, and his sales were waning, so it’s no big surprise that Columbia shelved this release. It was finally released as part of the excellent Bootleg Vol. IV: Soul of Truth, which featured two full discs of rare Cash gospel albums. This particular album has its moments, but again shows Johnny (and producer Charlie Bragg) whitewashing anything interesting about their sound.