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Issue Date:  September 24, 2004

Gospel greats strum the soul

Compilation, Cash release give gospel genre its due as country’s muse


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, “Country’s 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 museum’s senior historian, John Rumble, said: “It wasn’t 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 Foley’s version of “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me)” is reason enough to buy the record. The Carter Family’s “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” and Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” are low-fidelity gems from country’s early years.

Connie Smith’s vocal magic on “How Great Thou Art” is majestic, and Patsy Cline nicely understates “Life’s 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 “Country’s 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 Foley’s “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 Mother’s 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 I’ve ever made and this is it, ‘My Mother’s Hymn Book,’ ” Cash wrote in the liner notes. “On that album I nailed it. That was me. Me and the guitar, and that’s all there was in it and all there was to it. I’m so glad that I got that done.”

“My Mother’s 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 Cash’s cabin in his compound in Hendersonville, Tenn., a cabin much like the one in which he grew up on his family’s 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 Mother’s Hymn Book.”

He starts in with “Where We’ll 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. It’s great.

The Man in Black strums and painfully croons many great gospel classics on “My Mother’s Hymn Book,” including “I’ll Fly Away,” “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies” and “I’m 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 wasn’t 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

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 2004

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