Johnny Cash – Unearthed: Disc 4: My Mother’s Hymn Book

In the next-to-last disc of Johnny Cash’s posthumous Unearthed album, he decided to compile various songs that he had recorded with Rick Rubin during those first recording sessions that would become American Recordings into one last gospel/spiritual album. The particular songs he sang in those sessions all came from a very special place for Cash: his mother’s hymn book. Thus, the collection is titled My Mother’s Hymn Book:

I can’t think of a more peaceful or joyful album of songs than in any of the instances where Cash decides to do all spirituals. Sure, Christian beliefs and the music associated with them are hand-in-hand with Country music, but even in Country, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things (ok that latter example is more like a really weird way to do things).

Having grown up in the country, in Texas, I have been to my fair share of churches and I have heard my fair share of hymns, in fact, I knew half of these songs before ever listening to them, and in fact this particular selection of songs that affected Johnny Cash so powerfully in his youth have had a similar effect on my own youth, so hearing this collection of songs is both reminiscent of my love of these songs, and my love of Johnny Cash’s music. Indeed, this is Cash’s favorite album he ever did, and though I feel differently about it, I can not blame him.

Really, if you look back on Cash’s discography, two things that he had wanted to accomplish was to make an album of Gospel music, and a little later in his career, to make an album utilizing just himself and a guitar. Both ideas were struck down by the powers that be, the former by Sam Philips and the latter by everybody that wasn’t Rick Rubin, but Cash persevered. Indeed, when Cash left Sun in order to record for the greener pastures of Columbia Records, one of his stipulations was that he must be allowed to record a gospel album, which would become his second album there. Columbia, however, was against the idea of Johnny Cash doing an album with just a guitar, echoing Sam Philips’ sentiment that such a thing would never sell. Sure enough, when Cash joined up with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, his first album, an album with just Cash and a guitar, became one of the definitive albums of his career.

Cash proved himself twice over, and this time, with no-one to stop him, his idea was to release, as part of this substantial Unearthed collection, the hymns that were most important to him, utilizing nothing more than his voice and his guitar. In a way, this part of the album is the most important of the 5 discs therein, because it really puts into perspective not only how Cash was intending to end his career the way he would have wanted to start it, but that the end of his life would also reflect the beginning. From his earliest memories to his final thoughts, this music was always there.

This part of Unearthed was actually released separately in 2004, and charted semi-prominently; nothing compared to his American V album that we have yet to write up, but certainly better than some of his gospel albums from the past.

My own experience with this album is bittersweet. The songs are amazing, and the song selection is even better. It starts with the very apropos “Where We’ll Never Grow Old”, and includes some bright spots like guitarist extraordinaire Merle Travis’ “I Am A Pilgrim” (who some know from The Byrds), and a great one called “Where The Soul Of Man Never Dies” (co-written by Wayne Raney, yes, THAT Wayne Raney, from which Cash bought his $2.98 harmonica in CLINT, TEXAS as stated in “Please Don’t Play Red River Valley” on Everybody Loves A Nut). Thing is, the songs wherein Cash’s past and my own collide, is almost a little too much to take.

See, one of my best memories having to do with hymns is from my youth (about age 5-7 or so) where my mom and a friend of hers would sing some of these good ol’ hymns into a tape recorder with my dad finger-picking a guitar (a ’61 Gibson Hummingbird) that now belongs to me. Every time I hear the songs “When The Role Is Called Up Yonder” and especially “I’ll Fly Away”, it’s a little too much to take, kind of like staring directly at the sun. Cash does extremely well with these songs, and in the liner notes for Unearthed, he makes the admission that “When The Role Is Called Up Yonder” was actually sang at his older brother’s funeral back in 1944, so that makes two of us who are powerfully affected by this kind of music.

There’s another hymn that Cash has a powerful story behind, and it’s a hymn that I actually had not heard before. It’s called “Let The Lower Lights Be Burning”, and the story goes that, when Johnny Cash’s father was on his deathbed, in a coma, Johnny and the rest of his family said their good-byes and decided to sing a song, and this was the one that they chose. Apparently, singing this song over his bed caused him to wake up singing along. That’s kind of amazing, actually, but that’s how some of these hymns affect people. Sometimes a good hymn will wake someone out of a coma, apparently!

So, despite some uncomfortable moments, there is nothing I can recommend more to a lover of hymns than this album. No matter how jaded or silly or pretentious I might get about music sometimes (actually most of the time on this blog), it’s songs like these that remind me what it’s all about. Indeed, I learned how to sing songs from my mother’s hymn book, and having that connection with Johnny Cash is a powerful thing indeed, and it doesn’t hurt that he sounds a bit like my dad anyway. He’s like one of the family to me, which is probably why I enjoy his music so much.

Here ends the 4-part writeup to Unearthed (the other 3 parts can be seen in the 3 Monday entries preceding this one). I decided against writing up the 5th disc in the Unearthed compilation, as it is the Best Of Cash On American, and it seems silly to me to cover the songs I’ve already covered once on this blog. The only thing I will mention is that I’m slightly disappointed that the collection was nearly devoid of any Christian songs at all, other than “The Man Comes Around”, but since Cash arranged the compilation, I can’t really argue. I plan on writing up at least 2 more Johnny Cash albums before the year is out, so this isn’t the last time you’ll be hearing from me on the subject of the Man In Black. Until then, thanks so much for reading.

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