Issue Date: September 24, 2004
Gospel greats strum the soul
Compilation, Cash release give gospel genre its due as countrys muse
By MATT STOULIL
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and New Haven Records have compiled what they believe are the 20 best country gospel tunes. This compilation, Countrys 20 Classic Gospel Songs of the Century, is dense and storied, with insightful liner notes and an impressive roster of American music pioneers.
The connection between country music and religious music runs deep -- down to the roots. In its infancy in the 20s, country music was the output of Southern artists who honed their craft in and around churches and family gatherings. When they began playing gigs and radio broadcasts, the bulk of country musicians song catalogs often consisted of hymns and gospel songs. These performers drew inspiration and musical content from the social and spiritual bedrock of their rural upbringing: the church.
The Hall of Fame and New Haven personnel, with input from country radio professionals, narrowed the list to the 20 tracks contained on this album. Many deserving pieces hit the cutting room floor, but these 20 are not too shabby. The museums senior historian, John Rumble, said: It wasnt really that hard to come up with great performances and great songs. The hard part was deciding which 20 we were going to present.
Red Foleys version of (Therell Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me) is reason enough to buy the record. The Carter Familys Can the Circle Be Unbroken and Hank Williams I Saw the Light are low-fidelity gems from countrys early years.
Connie Smiths vocal magic on How Great Thou Art is majestic, and Patsy Cline nicely understates Lifes Railway to Heaven, with accompaniment from the Jordanaires.
Country greats Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard with the ubiquitous Carter Family, Tennessee Ernie Ford, the Stanley Brothers and Dolly Parton also show up on Countrys 20 Classic Gospel Songs of the Century.
Newer arrivals Alison Krauss and Vince Gill open the album with I Know Who Holds Tomorrow and Go Rest High on That Mountain, respectively. Both numbers are stirring, but recorded only a decade ago they lack the years and notoriety of, say, Jim Reeves In the Garden or the dusty charm of Foleys Valley.
Even -- gasp -- rock n roll crossover artists Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley are among those chosen, Cash with Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord), featuring the Carter Family, and Presley with the Jordanaires on the 1965 No. 3 pop hit Crying in the Chapel. Both artists blurred the lines between gospel, rock n roll and country, recording albums of all genres throughout their careers.
Earlier this year, a new Cash gospel record, My Mothers Hymn Book, hit store shelves, featuring some of his last recorded work.
Cash, who left the earth in September 2003, did not hesitate a moment to declare his greatest work. You asked me to pick my favorite album Ive ever made and this is it, My Mothers Hymn Book, Cash wrote in the liner notes. On that album I nailed it. That was me. Me and the guitar, and thats all there was in it and all there was to it. Im so glad that I got that done.
My Mothers Hymn Book, originally released as one disc in the posthumous Cash boxed set titled Unearthed, is available apart from the set as a result of numerous requests from fans. The album is sincere, underproduced and brimming with true Cash charm.
The album was recorded on a Sunday at Cashs cabin in his compound in Hendersonville, Tenn., a cabin much like the one in which he grew up on his familys New Deal farm in Dyess, Ark. In that cabin as a boy, Cash would sing from Heavenly Highway Hymns with his mother while she strummed her Sears Roebuck guitar. It was from this same book that Cash pulled the songs for My Mothers Hymn Book.
He starts in with Where Well Never Grow Old, a favorite with the Carter Family, one that Cash had an affinity for since his days on the road with them in the 60s. Then, without missing a beat, Cash leads us through I Shall Not Be Moved. You will need to hit the back button on your CD player to repeat this track. Its great.
The Man in Black strums and painfully croons many great gospel classics on My Mothers Hymn Book, including Ill Fly Away, Where the Soul of Man Never Dies and Im Bound for the Promised Land. These in particular had a timely truth for Cash while he was recording. His rigorous and once-wild life as a touring musician had caught up with him; he was in his 70s, nearly blind, asthmatic and not very mobile. He wasnt trying to fool anyone, and he knew he was close to meeting his maker. But the truth, sincerity and bravery with which he stared down death is what makes this album so sweet.
His coda to Hymn Book is Just as I Am, a tune embraced by other artists such as gospel great Mahalia Jackson. The lyrics speak volumes and meant a great deal to Cash as he came back to the church after his time in the wilderness. Just as I am, though tossed about, with many a conflict, many a doubt. Fightings and fears, within, without, oh, Lamb of God, I come. These words probably meant a great deal to him during his last days as well.
Matt Stoulil is NCR layout assistant, a bass player and an avid observer of the music community. Get in tune with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 2004
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