The Gospel RoadHow do you review Johnny’s longest album, The Gospel Road – A Story of Jesus, Told and Sung by Johnny Cash? Even the title is exhausting!

This 1973 release is both a triumph and a tragedy. Even in his darkest years of addiction and isolation, Christianity was never far from Johnny’s heart. As he began rebuilding his life in the late 1960s, the faith of Johnny’s childhood became a driving force in his life.  By the early 1970s, he was a friend of evangelist Billy Graham (among others, including Hank Snow’s son), and felt an increasing passion to make a film about the life of his savior, Jesus Christ.

So here we have the fruit of his labour in the form of a 76-track soundtrack. As it turns out, this is less of a soundtrack and, instead, largely a rip of the film’s audio. The film is a fairly straightforward telling of Jesus’ life with Cash narrating, and a string of songs old and new tying the story together. It has none of the controversy of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, nor the shocking brutality of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. The tone here is one of reverence and warmth.

It was a triumph in that Cash actually managed to do it. Few would have the resources and wherewithal to film a full-blown religious movie in the Holy Land, particularly one with as  little film experience as Johnny Cash (he starred in a couple of b-movies). Moreover, we see in this depiction of Christ a friendliness exhibited through his relationships with the disciples and children. Cash often sang many gospel tunes of desperation, calling out to his Lord in a time of need, and it is the evocation of a compassionate God that really shines through here.

The tragedy, is that not only is the film rather dull (as movies of Jesus can be), but it never reached the wide audience he’d intended.  Cash had invested himself in large personal projects before, including his first gospel album Hymns, and the many historical concept albums he released in the 60s (Ballads of the True West, Bitter Tears…). In moving into the film world, though, he was moving way out his comfort zone. He cast too many friends in the film, resulting in wooden performances. Worse, though, Cash simply didn’t know the business of making movies, so when it was all wrapped (an accomplishment in itself considering it was filmed on location in Israel), he couldn’t find a distribution partner. Hoping it would be picked up by a Hollywood Studio and shown everywhere, he was eventually saved by his friend Billy Graham, whose organization picked up the film and used it as an evangelism tool. While Johnny had hoped to use the film to proclaim his Lord to the world, he had hoped to use traditional entertainment channels to reach a wider audience.

An even greater tragedy was the rift this experience caused with Cash’s long-time manager Saul Holiff. Holiff had carried Johnny through those darkest hours of the mid-late 60s, smoothing over relationships with promoters when Cash was a no-show or wasted on stage, and helping him rebuild his career through the prison albums and then his TV show. In the early 70s, though, Cash’s evangelistic bent strained the relationship with Holiff. Cash, and evidently June even moreso, became irritated that Holiff wouldn’t join them when they sang at a Billy Graham Crusade. In Holiff’s mind, there was nothing to manage – this wasn’t a paid performance, it was Johnny and June choosing to charity work they were passionate about. For Cash, though, it was a personal slight. When Johnny wanted to spend a fortune filming an unsellable movie about Jesus in Israel, one can imagine what Holiff’s response would have been. Sadly, this was the beginning of the end of their relationship, and by the end of 1973, Holiff “retired” from the music business and moved north to Canada.

What, then, of the music? Despite the endless number of tracks (76 on the CD issue, 77 on my LP), there are really only ten songs on here, several of which are drawn from Johnny’s back catalogue. Motifs from the tunes are used as background music throughout the film as well. Overall the music is what you would expect of Cash approaching gospel music in the early 70s. The Statler Brothers and Carter Family are featured frequently, providing a wall of harmonies. The backing is simple acoustic guitars on the quieter moments, and the tic-tock, boom-chicka-boom of the Tennesse Three (still with Carl Perkins) on the upbeat numbers. And there are strings everywhere. Thankfully, as with his previous album Any Old Wind That Blows, the strings are generally tasteful. After the overblown gospel choruses on A Thing Called Love, producer Larry Butler, now a Cash regular, seemed to find a balance between the Tennessee Three’s sound and larger orchestral arrangements that previous producers – Bob Johnston, Don Law, Frank Jones – could not.

What of the songs, then? Two we already know. He Turned the Water Into Wine was first recorded for 1968’s The Holy Land. It’s straightforward narrative of Jesus’ miracles is interspersed in four parts through the telling of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus Was a Carpenter, from 1970’s Hello, I’m Johnny Cash is also broken up, sung first as we approach the crucifixion, and then, powerfully, the last verse, which pulls Jesus’ story into a contemporary context, sung a cappella at the conclusion of the film.

A few tunes are heavy with narrative. Opener Praise the Lord works well, setting the powerful prophecy of Isaiah 9 (“A people that once walked in darkness have seen a great light…”) to an acoustic backing. The Last Supper is less so. The Statlers join in and the song builds from a cappella to full band, but the clumsy telling of the Last Supper is forgettable. Children, too, is a forgettable number, despite being drawn from one of the more enjoyable scenes of the film.

The rest of the material, though, is quite good. Gospel Road is a fun boom-chicka-boom number that sets the tone for Jesus’ travelling preaching, and is in many ways a gospel version of Ride This Train. I See Men as Trees Walking (debuted a year earlier at the Jesus Explosion festival) is a fun, upbeat telling of a blind man healed by Jesus. Follow Me is a beautiful recasting of the John Denver classic, with June Carter singing it as Mary Magdalene. Hearing the song in a new context is wonderfully refreshing.

Then we are left with the two most powerful numbers on the album. Help Me is a Larry Gatlin number which fits Cash’s religious view well. Here we have a simple ballad of a man crying out to God sungin parts by Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge and Larry Gatlin. The second part – a stripped down verse with only Kristofferson – works best thanks to its simplicity and heartfelt performance. Then we have Kristofferson’s own Burden of Freedom. Another acoustic ballad, it is also broken into segments. The final verse is sung by Cash in what might be his most frail vocal performance until his Rick Rubin recordings decades later. As Jesus is crucified, Cash’s voice breaks:

Lord, help me to shoulder the burden of freedom
And give me the courage to be what I can

This is truly one of the most powerful moments in Cash’s vast discography.

Evaluating this album, then, is a difficult task. Despite some excellent music, as a whole, the album doesn’t work. I find the mood changes too abrupt – the first LP is light and buoyant, gurgling along with Perkins guitar through the Gospel Road. The second LP is heavy with narrative of Jesus’ death, bogged down by overwrought musical backing. Listening to the full set in one listen is a long haul. What would have worked far better would be a true soundtrack: “Songs from The Gospel Road.” An abridged narration by Johnny (similar to Ride This Train or America) could have tied the songs together and told the story in a far more efficient manner than simply handing over the entire film’s dialogue. It would also allow us to hear each song in their entirety rather than chopped up verse by verse.

At the end of the day, the songs are good, but the album is not… a triumph and a tragedy in one.

3/5

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