By David Werther.
Johnny Cash, My Mother's Hymn Book (American Recording Company, 2004).
In 1954 a young man, whose mother had told him his voice was a gift from God, called Sam Phillips of Sun Records. Johnny Cash told Phillips he wanted to record gospel music. That effectively ended the conversation. Phillips could not sell gospel and was not interested. In fact, Phillips was on the cusp of the major cultural revolution we call rock and roll. In 1951 he recorded the first rock and roll record, "Rocket 88," thanks to the talent of Ike Turner and company, along with a broken amplifier that gave the guitar a new sound. Then, some months before Cash called in 1954, late one night in the recording studio between sessions Phillips heard a shy singer open up on "That's All Right Mama." He decided then and there that that was the sound he wanted from Elvis Presley.
Despite his initial rejection, Cash later managed to get an audition with Phillips. Phillips liked what he heard, but remained adamantly opposed to Cash recording gospel, even as the "B" side of a record. Instead, Phillips recorded some classic Johnny Cash, including "Hey Porter" and "Folsom Prison Blues" with its infamous line, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." Even so, when Cash had the chance he bolted to Columbia records to have the opportunity to do gospel music.
Cash made some gospel records with Columbia, but his favorite recording, gospel or otherwise, came late in his career, and after his long association with Columbia. It is the posthumously released My Mother's Hymn Book. In the liner notes Cash writes, "You asked me to pick my favorite album I've ever made and this is it, My Mother's Hymn Book." The music is all from a battered hymnal Cash inherited from his mother. Cash cut all fifteen songs in a single day. There are no production gimmicks here, just Cash's guitar and voice, the voice Bono has called "the most male voice in Christendom."
Cash's selections have special significance. "Let the Lower Lights be Burning" was sung at his father's deathbed. "When the Roll is Called up Yonder" was part of his beloved brother Jack's funeral service. Jack was a devout Christian who died from the cuts of a circular saw when he was fourteen. He had been sawing fence poles to try to bring in some more money for the family. "When He Reached Down" was one of his mother's favorites.
In the liner notes Cash calls himself a C- Christian who had his wilderness years: "I had to finally accept it, you know, that God thought there was something worth saving." In the songs on My Mother's Hymn Book we have the privilege of listening to an American master singing about what matters most to him. The CD is a testament of grace and faith, an opportunity to share in some of Cash's deepest joys and sorrows. The C- Christian gets an A+ for this one.