My Mother's Hymn Book

Johnny Cash

American, 2004

REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones


My Mother's Hymn Book is beautiful in its simplicity. Johnny Cash had performed this album in the midst of his American series, but it was not released until the Unearthed box set, at which time it was also release as a standalone album. Its production is identical to the first in the American series, featuring only Cash and his guitar on all the songs. This is Cash as he often wanted to be: performing spiritual songs with very little instrumentation. The inspiration for the album simply comes from songs which he remembered singing as a boy in church and around the home. The songs are true to the rural South and are still sung in many churches in that region even today, though some of the songs may be 100 years old or more by this point.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Hymn Book is gorgeous in its simplicity. “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” and “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies” are shining examples, but the classics “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder” and “In The Sweet By and By” are equally moving. The only way that the album could have been improved would have been if some light instrumentation had been added for breaks between verses. Backing vocals perhaps could have been supplied by June Carter if she was alive at the time of recording, since most of the songs are written with the typical call and response style of older spirituals or the separate alto line for early Southern gospel songs. “If We Never Meet Again” could have benefited greatly from such treatment. 

Cash also proves that his voice was strong even in old age, with as rich a baritone as ever.  “When The Savior Reached Down For Me” and “Let The Lower Lights Be Burning” show off the lower registers of his voice. He also speeds things along with “Do Lord” and Merle Travis’ bluesy gospel tune “I Am A Pilgrim,” which falls right in line as a spiritual side of the coin from all the secular songs Cash performed about traveling and rambling.

Spiritual music was always an important part of Johnny Cash’s career. He and Elvis Presley were really the only secular music superstars who devoted substantial energy to producing a gospel catalog. My Mother's Hymn Book almost has the feel of a preservation activity rather than a commercial release, much more in the vein of the Smithsonian Folkways recordings attempting to capture the music of the rural South. Its spare presentation is endearing and accomplished the goal of both preservation and performance. Sit back on a Sunday afternoon with your guitar and sing along.

Rating: A-

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