Johnny Cash – Bootleg IV – The Soul of Truth (review)

Johnny Cash – Bootleg Vol. IV: The Soul of Truth  (Columbia / Legacy) review

No other performer of any genre was more of a “man of the people” than Johnny Cash.  No matter how popular he became (he even hosted his own TV show for awhile), he never forgot the common man, the underdog – some of his finest recordings came from behind the harshest prisons in America.  And, even during the heights of his career, his demons weren’t too far behind.  That’s one of the things we love about Cash – he never preached, instead taking the “I’ve been there, I know what you’re going through” approach.

The Cash Estate continues it’s fine archival campaign, mining the rich Johnny Cash vaults for Bootleg Vol. IV: The Soul of Truth, a collection of previous unreleased and hard-to-find songs of faith. Like the previous volumes in this series, this set is jammed-packed with material – 51 tracks, drawing from a variety of sources, in this case taking sessions from 1975, 1979 and 1983. The accompanying booklet contains a lovingly reflective essay by Cash’s son, John Carter Cash.

Disc one starts with the original, 20-track A Believer Sings the Truth, released in 1979 on the tiny Cachet label.  Among the highlights is a duet with daughter Rosanne on his own composition, “Over the Next Hill (We’ll Be Home),” the Dixieland-flavored “I’ve Got Jesus in My Soul,” a return to the mariachi horns of “Ring of Fire” on “When He Comes,” and a surprisingly rocking rendition of “Strange Things Happening Everyday.”  Among the disc’s bonus tracks is “Truth,” the lyrics long-rumored to have been written by Muhammed Ali, when they were in fact penned by Hazrat Inayat Khan, a leader of the Universal Sufi movement of the early 20th century.

Disc two is even more interesting, with the first 12 tracks recorded in 1975, but inexplicably never released.  Cash had just done the similarly-themed The Gospel Road in 1973, so perhaps his record label thought it was too soon for another spiritual album.  Either way, the songs here are even better than disc one.  On “Sanctified,” Cash is joined by the Oak Ridge Boys, who take turns trying to tempt him into various sins and debauchery – it’s great fun.  He gives an excellent spoken-word introduction to another one of his own compositions, “What On Earth Will You Do (For Heaven’s Sake),” which will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.  A handful of the tracks are repeated from disc one, but these versions are a little more earthy and understated than those that actually got issued.  The next ten cuts come from Johnny Cash–Gospel Singer, an album released back in 1983, but long out of print, produced by friend Marty Stuart, who gives the sessions an old rockabilly feel.  Highlights from here include a stunning version of “The Old Rugged Cross” featuring Jessi Colter – when their two voices blend near the end of the song, it’s a real delight.   Cash tells a touching story at the beginning of his own “Half a Mile a Day” – he sounds so human here, it makes you sad to know he’s gone.  Four bonus cuts from the same session round out the collection, with Rodney Crowell’s “Wildwood in the Pines” among the standouts.

Cash was just as comfortable singing gospel as he was secular music.  What stands out from these tracks is how youthful and energetic he sounds singing this music.  He was certainly not a young man when these songs were put to tape, but the passion that he instills in these songs assures that he wasn’t doing this for some record company commitment – these came from the heart.  In his liner notes, John Carter Cash suggests that to hear his father sing gospel music is to hear who he was as a person.  Well, then it’s time you got to know the real Johnny Cash.  –Tony Peters