The Holy LandThe Holy Land is another unique entry in Johnny Cash’s discography.  Released in early 1969, Cash’s life was turning in a big way.  He had kicked his drug addiction and married June Carter after a long affair.  His career was picking up to, thanks to the success of live album At Folsom Prison.  In the midst of it all, he took some time off in 1968 to visit Israel and tour a number of key biblical sites.  It was that tour that inspired this, his third gospel album.

While the trip may have been personally inspiration, and likely a much-cherished time of respite for the newlyweds, the album lacks the energy of the great Cash albums.  What Cash has provided is a hybrid of two musical formats he adored: the gospel album and the travelogue.  On either count, though, he has done better.

As a gospel album, The Holy Land is a mixed bag.  We’re offered eight tunes, five of them penned by Cash, only a few of which actually give a picture of Israel.  Land of Israel is the first, and it’s a syrupy ballad overblown with sweeping strings and the dread vibraphone that ruined Hymns from the Heart.  Nazarene and He Turned the Water, on the other hand, succeed as catchy, upbeat tunes telling the story of Jesus to a classic boom-chicka-boom rhythm.  Notable on these tunes is the presence of Carl Perkins who, as on Cash’s last two studio albums, provides glorious lead guitar.  The final tune about Israel, however, fails to convince.  Come to the Wailing Wall is a disjointed tune with a prolonged introduction that stumbles into a brief, stilted documentation of the last remaining wall of the second Jerusalem temple.

The remaining songs actually have little to do with Israel itself, but many work on their own as gospel tunes.  The Fourth Man, written by Arthur Smith, is another spritely tune about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were thrown into a fire for being faithful to the God of Israel while in Babylonian captivity.  It would make a great Sunday school tune if not for the overwrought backing vocals by the Statler Brothers.  The Ten Commandments tells another classic Bible story, this one set in the desert before the Israelites entered the promised land.  Written by Statler Brother Lew DeWitt, this one is marred by a brash string arrangement.  Cash did well to crib the melody for Starkville City Jail, later that year.

It is the remaining two songs, then, that remain as classics, even if they don’t speak to the Holy Land per se.  Daddy Sang  Bass was the Carl Perkins-penned #1 hit for Cash that perfectly blended nostalgia for old-time religion with a rockin’ guitar shuffle.  Drawing on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” as its central motif, the song will make even an atheist want to head down to a tent revival.  God is Not Dead is a quiet acoustic tune marking Cash’s bold faith.  In a time when many were walking away from faith (as they continue to do today), Cash calls for a simple religion based in love and charity: “It isn’t God, but man that’s dead when love is locked outside.”  It’s the type of message he would turn to increasingly in the 1970s.

As a travelogue, the album is less successful.  Recorded on cassette as Johnny, June and their guide travelled throughout Israel, it’s much like sitting through someone’s vacation photos.  The professionally-recorded Ride This Train fares much better as a travelogue.  While Johnny and June are certainly sincere, the quality is simply lacking.  Likewise, as mentioned above, many of the songs aren’t even set in the Holy Land.  More appropriate songs could have been chosen.

The album remains important, however, for several reasons.  First, it documents the positive direction in which Cash’s personal life was heading.  Second, it is the last album he would record with Luther Perkins before his tragic death in a house fire, and, when the strings and choirs ease off, the interplay of the Tennessee Three with Carl Perkins on lead guitar is fanastic.  Last, when it works, this album really does work.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot of dross to wade through for, essentially, five good songs: Nazarene, He Turned the Water, Daddy Sang Bass, The Fourth Man, and God is Not Dead.  If you manage to have an original vinyl pressing, though, you can admire the cool 3-D record jacket while you wait for the good parts.

3.5/5

 

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