erasing clouds

Johnny Cash, My Mother's Hymn Book

reviewed by dave heaton

"I have heard of a land on a faraway strand/tis a beautiful home of the soul/built by Jesus on high where we never shall die/tis a land where we'll never grow old..." Hearing those words sung by Johnny Cash, along with plenty of similar words from the old church songs that his mother loved, of course resonates deeply with listeners because of the fact of his death, not to mention how revered he is as a music legend by listeners of all stripes. But to pay too much attention to that, to think about this album only in relation to its preoccupation with the afterlife and how that jibes with his death, is to ignore how great the album is on its own terms.

Cash has sung religious songs throughout much of his career (those songs that made up the middle third of the 2000 boxed set Love God Murder, for example), but here they're more stripped down then ever: this is just Johnny Cash's rich, sonorous voice and a lone acoustic guitar. That lack of embellishments, combined with how fantastic his singing is (as good as it ever was) and how moving so many of these old spirituals are, makes My Mother's Hymnbook a supremely rewarding record, worthy of its inclusion both in the Unearthed box set last year and as a stand-alone album this year.

Here he's investing these religious songs with the immediacy and raw force (and honesty, for lack of a more descriptive word) that he often seems to reserve for his most brutal songs about murder and thieves. These songs burn into you and lift you up; this is true feel-good music. Religion here isn't about guilt or punishment or bureaucracy, it's about love and celebration and peace, and he sings each word like he means it. Or as Cash put it in the liner notes to the God disc, "it's about sharing, praise, worship, wonder, and wisdom." It's hard to imagine anyone not feeling inspired by this music, no matter what their religious beliefs are. This is timeless, universal music, and one more amazing performance from a man who has a discography full of them.

Issue 22, April 2004

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