As a rockabilly pioneer, Johnny Cash sang what some people called the devil’s music.
As a genre-crossing country singer, he sang the people’s music. As a sometimes-tormented man, he sang God’s music. The 24 familiar hymns and spirituals here — all from 1957 to 1981 — include eight songs recorded with the Carter Family and three never before released.
Most of the songs on Cash — Ultimate Gospel, even with the professional polish, have the simple feel of the evenings he spent as a child and teenager singing on the porch of his parents’ farmhouse in Arkansas. The collection is also as uneven as those porch sessions surely were. While there are more gems than clunkers here, only the most devout worshipper could like “That’s Enough” and “The Old Account.” “The Preacher Said ‘Jesus Said’” is valuable only for its novelty as a duet with the Rev. Billy Graham.
Several songs stand out, including “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Peace In The Valley,” “Amazing Grace,” a haunting duet with Anita Carter on “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?,” and two of his own songs, “He Turned The Water Into Wine” and “Belshazzar,” a cautionary story of the powerful king of Babylon “who was weighed in the balance and found wanting.”
There is no doubting the sincerity of these songs — they bring to mind the day when Cash signed his first recording contract, with Sun Records. He’s said he had 15 cents to his name at the time — 20 cents would have bought a loaf of bread or a pack of cigarettes. As he walked out of the studio with contract in hand, he gave that last 15 cents to a beggar “and walked away a happy man.” Cash — Ultimate Gospel is, overall, a nice collection from a man equally familiar with the devil, the people, and God.