Review: Hymns from the Heart – Johnny Cash

Posted: February 13, 2013 in 1960's, 2/5, Gospel, Johnny Cash
Tags: , , , , , ,

Hymns from the HeartOne reason Johnny Cash left Sun Records was because Sam Phillips wouldn’t let him record a gospel album – “they just won’t sell,” he claimed. Within months of moving to Columbia, Cash released Hymns by Johnny Cash and proved Sam wrong. Hymns was wonderful because it sounded like Cash: it was brash, it was vulnerable, and it reflected his worldview so closely. Over a dozen traditional, contemporary and original gospel tunes, Cash sang of the hope his faith brought to the weary and downtrodden.

The same cannot be said for 1962’s Hymns from the Heart, although, in principle it should work. Apart from one Cash original (I Got Shoes), it’s made up of standard hymns Cash sang in church growing up. My Presbyterian roots are a long way from Cash’s Southern gospel tradition, so I find the choice of tunes fascinating. Where my musical tradition was dry and intellectual, Cash’s spiritual world is one of folksy comfort, born of the American revivalist movements. The hymns are steeped in poverty and death, using simple images to inspire optimism and resilience. Just look at the titles: God Must Have My Fortune Laid Away, When I Take My Vacation in Heaven, When He Reached Down His Hand for Me. The message reaches its apex in closer, These Hands:

Now don’t try to judge me by what you’d like me be
For my life hasn’t been a success
Some people have power but still they grieve
While these hands brought me happiness
Now I’m tired and I’m old and I haven’t much gold
Maybe things ain’t been all that I planned
Lord above hear my plea when it’s time to judge me
Take a look at these hard working hands

Sadly, what should have inspired Cash to make a warm, intimate album, results in his worst album to date. More so, for an artist who usually released 1-2 albums a year, there were almost 18 long months between Now, There Was a Song! and Hymns from the Heart (thankfully, Sun cleaned out their vaults and released Now Here’s Johnny Cash in 1961). Given the amount of time he took between releases, it’s shocking that this was the best he could do… and this time round, there’s only one Cash original (I Got Shoes).

The real problem here is the arrangements. The choirs are thicker than ever and most songs are dominated by vibraphone. The result is an album that sounds more like Tennessee Ernie Ford than Cash. As a fan of gospel, I love so many of these songs, but the arrangements are so thick and treacly, I find them hard to listen to. There are glimmers of hope. When I’ve Learned Enough to Die has a gorgeous acoustic accompaniment, and My God is Real has some wonderful lead guitar, but sadly, they get both get bogged down by choirs and vibes.

The one moment of redemption is Cash’s own I Got Shoes. This one, with its call and response vocals, almost sounds like an outtake of Hymns. The one difference is the drums. When you hear that dominant snare sound, you know something has changed, and indeed it has. This marks the addition of WS Holland on drums, expanding the Tennessee Two to the Tennessee Three.

Thankfully many of these hymns have been reinterpreted much better elsewhere. Willie Nelson plays them fast and loose on The Troublemaker, and Cash plays them intimately and sensitively decades later on My Mother’s Hymn Book. Sadly, this album marks the direction Cash would generally turn to in his hymns from here on out. Take for instance the 1970 live version of this album’s closing track, These Hands, found on The Johnny Cash Show. The early ‘60s vibes are removed, but the choir remains, and a grandiose trumpet is added. As a gospel fan, I take comfort in the bookends of Cash’s gospel career – Hymns and My Mother’s Hymn Book are masterpieces. Hymns from the Heart, however, falls from grace.


Other songs from the era:

  • Forty Shades of Green – Cash re-released The Rebel –Johnny Yuma as a single in 1961. Featured as the b-side, this original tune about Ireland is hit-and-miss. The melody is memorable, and it’s interesting to hear Cash sing about a new landscape. The music, however, is far from country. Instead, Cash sings over another sickly-sweet arrangement of strings, vibes and angelic choruses. Found on Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash.
  • Tall Man/Tennessee Flat-Top Box – Cash recorded this jaunty tune in 1961 for the film, Cindy. His performance is innocuous enough, but the female backing vocals are just strange. Sounding vaguely like Alvin and the Chipmunks, one wonders if they’ve been sped up. Too much vari-speed is a bad thing. Found on Singles, Plus. The b-side, however, is flawless. No backing vocals, no vibes, no strings, just Cash, The Tennessee Two, and (assumedly) Johnny Western picking a wonderful acoustic lead. This one would have fit in with his Sun catalogue.
  • The Big Battle – Released as an a-side (with When I’m Old Enough… on the b-side), The Big Battle is a big production. Sounding like something out of a John Wayne western, this civil war tale with booming drums foreshadows what Cash would do later in the decade on Ballads of the True Wild West.
  • A Day in the Grand Canyon – In 1961, pop orchestra conductor Andre Kostelanetz released a recording of Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. The final track on the LP was Johnny Cash reading a narrative about… A Day in the Grand Canyon. No music here, just sound effects and Johnny Cash’s deep baritone. Makes a nice bedtime story. Now available on budget iTunes compilations.
  • There’s Always A Mother Waiting – This one sounds like an outtake from Hymns from the Heart. A gentle, sentimental acoustic tune with – again – too much vibraphone. Available on Bootleg Vol. 2.
  • Blue Bandana/So Doggone Lonesome – An unreleased pair of tunes by The Tennessee Three. Just what you’d expect, Blue Bandana is a softly meandering instrumental, while So Doggone Lonesome is a rockin’ instrumental version of Johnny’s Sun-era tune, notable for its overdubbed electric guitars, and Holland’s unique snare sound. Available on Bear Records sets.
  • So Do I/Shamrock Doesn’t Grow in California – More unreleased tunes from the era. So Do I is an original Cash moaner with some nice lead playing by Perkins. Shamrock doesn’t come together quite the same way. This unfinished tune continues Johnny’s newfound interest in Ireland (see Forty Shades of Green). Background vocals were added to the mix, but the instruments drop out on the verses. Cash’s vocal is still quite rough, so one can’t wonder if he intended to re-record this tune, but never got around to it. Available on Bear Record Sets.
  • Folsom Prison Blues/I Walk the Line – Johnny recorded these demos in 1961, proving that he was still capable of that stark, minimal sound. No new ground is covered in these tracks, but perhaps this was the starting point for 1964’s I Walk the Line re-recordings of his Sun hits. Available on the promotional-only The Alternative Johnny Cash (given out when you purchased two or more Johnny Cash CDs when Live at Madison Square Garden came out).

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