Album Review: Hymns by Johnny Cash – Johnny Cash

Posted: January 24, 2013 in 1950's, 3/5, 5/5, Country, Gospel, Johnny Cash, Music Reviews
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hymnsFaith was central to Johnny Cash’s music and life. Read either of his autobiographies and you’ll hear the haunting story of his older brother Jack’s brutal death at age 15. Mauled by a power saw in a local mill, he died a week later, depleted by the injuries to his stomach. Despite dying young, Jack left a strong impression on Johnny. Johnny remembered his brother as a gifted, fiery preacher.

If you look at the cover of Johnny’s first album for Rick Rubin – which would resuscitate Johnny’s career one last time before his own death – the black-and-white imagery echoes Johnny and Jack, one the dark, troubled soul, the other the good and faithful servant. As Cash discussed, though, even that black dog had a white spot, a fleck of hope.

When Johnny recorded Hymns in 1958 he was no saint. A road warrior, travelling the highways and byways promoting his career, his addiction to pills was beginning, taking uppers to sustain him from concert to concert, and downers to help him sleep when he got home. Compounded by affairs on the road, one can imagine he was not much of a husband or father.

Yet, Cash was adamant in his desire to record a gospel record, so adamant, in fact, that it became one of the determining factors in his move from Sun Records to Columbia. With one album under his belt at Columbia, they made good on their promise to allow him to record a gospel album. The result is Hymns by Johnny Cash, which went on to sell 500,000 copies.

Hymns offers new insight into Cash’s psyche. On this release we see little of the spit-in-your-eye rebel described in Folsom Prison Blues or Don’t Take Your Guns to Town. Instead, we see a humble man looking back to the faith of his childhood. Cash’s faith is deeply sentimental, rooted in the folksy Christianity of the cottonfields. Take “Are All the Children In” , a poem read over a gently-played “Just As I Am”. In it, a man reflects on death, wondering if God will call him in, just like his mother used to at the end of each day.

Sentimentality, however, should not be confused with happiness. I often get frustrated with the credit Rick Rubin receives for “discovering” the dark side of Cash, because it’s been there throughout his career, even on this his first gospel album. Despite this being an album of hymns, it is more accurately an album of desparate prayers. Many of the songs present a broken, lonesome and rejected man looking to a faithful God for hope. In Lead Me Father, he cries, “When my hands are tired and my step is slow/Walk beside me and give me the strength to go/Fill my face with your courage so defeat won’t show/Pick me up when I stumble so the world won’t know.” The Bible heroes are loners – Noah and Samson on He’ll be a Friend – and Jesus is the one who can feed, heal, and give life (It Was Jesus).

The songs are a mix of traditionals (The Old Account; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot), contemporary tunes (I Saw a Man, Lead Me Gently, Snow in His Hair, These Things Shall Pass, God Will), and four Cash originals. These four are all wonderful. It Was Jesus is a bouncy call-and-response number. Lead Me Father is a comforting ballad with beautiful backing vocals by the Jordanaires. I Call Him is a bouncy number co-written with his father, Roy Cash. Last, He’ll be a Friend is a memorable Bible lesson put to song.

Audience reactions to this release will vary. Many who don’t share Cash’s faith will find this collection tedious. As someone who does enjoy gospel, this is not just another hymn collection. Regardless, great value is found in his perspective on faith. Johnny isn’t a squeaky-clean Pat Boone, he’s a troubled man turning to faith for hope. This is the perspective that resonates throughout.

Musically, there is no other Cash album quite like this one. The core of this album is the boom-chicka-boom sound of Cash and the Tennessee Two. Sometimes gentle, sometimes rollicking, it is always Luther’s simple guitar lines racketing over Marshall’s back-and-forth bass, with Cash’s voice booming over the top. Throughout, their foundation is augmented by now-dated background choruses, and at times piano and drums. This is Cash in transition. He is shifting from the simple sound of the Tennessee Two, to a more orchestrated approach that would ultimately dwarf his signature sound.

Next to the stripped-back My Mother’s Hymn Book released shortly before his death, this is my favourite Cash gospel album. Many of these would carry through his live sets over the years (The Old Account absolutely rocks on At San Quentin). Here, though, they are clear, focused and incisive.

5/5 (If you don’t like gospel, 3/5?)

Other songs from the era:
The 2002 Legacy Edition of Hymns includes an alternate, mono mix of It Was Jesus. Stripped of the background vocals and with echo added to Cash’s vocal, this version just doesn’t work. Instead of being a sprite album opener, it turns into a plodding single.

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