Idol Chatter

There are two kinds of people in this world: Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles. Johnny Cash, particularly the Man in Black of recent memory, was strictly OT. His lined crag of a face projected righteous lament, matching a voice that boomed from somewhere beyond the clouds. “Ultimate Gospel,” a posthumous collection of Cash’s recordings of gospel tunes from across his long career proves that this was not the combined effect of legend and age. From his earliest days, Cash was a Jeremiah warning us about the wages of sin.

Take, for instance, “Belshazzar,” the song Cash chose for his audition for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, included here. Never has this reprobate king‘s plight–he saw the original “writing on the wall,” informing him God had found him wanting–been brought home so palpably. It must have put a discomforting fear of God in Phillips, who told the wannabe Cash to go away (which he did, though he later returned with “Folsom Prison Blues”).

The same haunting God-the-Father spirit carries through the early cuts on this disk, even the ones, like “It Was Jesus” and “I Was There When It Happened,” that are set in Anni Domini. Each begins simply with one of Cash’s signature one-string intros, followed by some inerrant truth about the weakness of man and the saving power of His sacred blood. On one Cash is even joined by that other Old Testament patriarch, Billy Graham, who intones scriptural preachments between Johnny’s verses. In these days of squabbling about peripheral issues, it’s refreshing to hear pure faith in the consolation of the cross uttered so plainly.

As Cash grows in stature the disk becomes a document of how cheesy the culture, especially country-music culture, got in the ’70s. Strings swell, Cash talk-sings “How Great Thou Art” to a stagey piano backing, and you realize that the version of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” you’ve been waiting for is going to be hammy and overblown. Halfway through these 24 cuts, I’d begun to yearn for Elvis, who somehow preserved the sound of sweat and tears even when his gospel got grandiose. But no gospel-lover–New Testament or Old–will want to pass up the chance to download the first dozen or so tracks on “Ultimate Gospel.”

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