Album Review: Johnny Cash – Sings Precious Memories

Posted: July 31, 2015 in 1970's, 3/5, Gospel, Johnny Cash
Tags: , , , , ,

Sings Precious MemoriesOne of the reasons behind Johnny Cash’s move from Sun to Columbia Records in 1959 was the Sam Phillip’s unwillingness to let Johnny release gospel music. Not surprisingly, Johnny’s second Columbia release was the excellent Hymns which brought original composition and gospel classics together in his signature boom chicka boom sound.  By the mid-70s, Johnny was still passionate about gospel music. He had released several gospel albums since then – the bland Hymns from the Heart, the travelogue The Holy Land, and the narrative of Jesus, The Gospel Road – not to mention two Christmas albums. Most of his albums featured at least one gospel tune as well, even (or especially) the prison ones!

Recent years had seen a shift in his gospel music, though. In the early years, Johnny was living wild and he seemed to turn to the hymns of his childhood for comfort. Working his way clean from drugs in 1968-1972 brought about a spiritual revival for Cash. He started attending a church pastored by Hank Snow’s son. Gospel pianist Larry Butler joined his band and produced several of his albums. And Cash began writing catchy, but often corny, gospel tunes similar to the style popular in revivalist churches of the day.

It is in this context that Sings Precious Memories was released as the second (of five!) albums Johnny released in 1975.  Self-produced by Johnny, it’s a surprising release. I’ll be succinct (for once) about the music: these are orchestra-led renderings of Johnny singing classic hymns. Imagine what you’d expect to hear on a 1975 variety show. If that’s your thing, you’ll like this album. If not, then there’s no need to buy this one. Easy choice.

For this review, then, I’m going to focus on the song selection. There’s a wide variety of traditions in western hymnody. Having grown up in rural Arkansas beginning in the 1930s, Johnny would have been exposed, for the most part, to hymns developed through American revivalism. Many early protestant hymns came from the Calvinist tradition and were dense with heavy theologically concepts. Central to these intellectual songs was a sense of destiny, that you were “in” or “out” based on God’s grace and appointment.

In the 1730s, the Great Awakening swept across Europe, England and America and brought about a far more personal type of faith, one that focused on individuals choosing God as their saviour, rather than God choosing them. Jesus became a friend and companion, and his spirit a guide and comforter in life. Emotion and individual reaction to God’s stirring were central the Christian experience. A second awakening moved through America in the early 19th century and gave rise to many of the churches that Johnny was exposed to in his childhood. Their songs were intense, sentimental, and intimate. By the 1960s, a similar revival was moving again through much of America, a return to personal faith through preachers like Billy Graham, as many of the established churches (Episcopalian, United Methodists), were fading away.

The eleven hymns on Sings Precious Memories are the product of this revivalist American tradition:

  • Precious Memories is a 1925 hymn from Tennessee. Although popular, it’s lacking in any real gospel message. Instead, it points to sentiment over family and home as an anchor in troubled times.
  • Rock of Ages is a British hymn with words written in the late 18th century and music written in the early 19th century. It is one of the great hymns of salvation:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.

  • The Old Rugged Cross is an American Methodist hymn from 1912. A powerful song relating the challenges of life as a Christian to the hope of future glory centred on a vision, “And I will cling to the Old Rugged Cross/And exchange it some day for a crown”
  • Softly and Tenderly is a late 19th century hymn that comes from the revivalist movement birthed in America’s Second Great Awakening. Its comforting melody is a result of the a capella Christian tradition in which it was written, although Johnny uses musical accompaniment. This hymn presents Jesus as a comforting, personal friend.
  • In the Sweet By and By is an American hymn from the mid-19th century that has become popular at funerals because of its clear message of reunion with God and loved ones beyond death. Johnny’s version is rendered fairly up beat with a boisterous brass section.
  • Just as I Am. Johnny had become close friends with evangelist Billy Graham, and this 1835 hymn by the great Charlotte Elliott was the climax of every Graham revival. It is the classic “altar call” song in which worshipers are invited to come to the altar at the front of the church, confess their sins, and accept Jesus as their savior. Its message of acceptance for everyone remains poignant to this day.
  • Farther Along is an early 20th century song of perseverance: “Tempted and tried, how often we question/Why we must suffer year after year”
  • When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder is a late 19th century American hymn about not missing out on salvation. It’s upbeat here, but not as fun as how Johnny often played it in concert.
  • Amazing Grace. If someone knows only one hymn, this is the one. If you don’t know its history, look it up. Johnny sings it reverently here.
  • At the Cross was written by great hymnist Isaac Watts in 1707, just before the first Great Awakening, and is a powerful hymn of salvation through Jesus’ death:

At the cross, at the cross,
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away –
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day.

Check out the gospel clapping at the end of Johnny’s version!

  • Have Thine Own Way, Lord is a beautiful song of surrender apparently written in 1902 by a missionary facing disappointment when they couldn’t raise the funds for their journey.

Personally, I enjoy these hymns far more than the cheesy gospel songs he had recently recorded (see “J-E-S-U-S”), although these too come from a sentimental hymn-writing tradition. Musically, the orchestration are not to my taste and I far prefer the acoustic renditions of many of these Johnny would provide late in his career on My Mother’s Hymn Book.

All in all, great song choice (if you’re looking for a gospel album), quite good singing, but forgettable music.

3/5

Other Songs from the Era:

  • Lily of the Valley – A home demo of this was released on Personal File, but he also recorded a proper version during the Precious Memories sessions. Released on The Great Seventies Recordings box set.
  • Gospel Ship/Song to Woody/Hey Porter – Bluegrass star Earl Scruggs was at the height of his success when he roped Johnny Cash (and a host of other big names) into contributing to his Anniversary Special Vol. 1. These are great versions of a classic southern gospel tune, a Bob Dylan cover, and a Sun-era Cash number. All are available on Anniversary Special Vol. 1, and the last two are also on Cash’s Singles, Plus.

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