Albums of the Decade #5: My Mother’s Hymn Book

Johnny Cash's sparse and brilliant "My Mother's Hymn Book"

Johnny Cash has always been the Bybee family bard. Some of my earliest memories are of the times my Dad would get out his guitar and play “Folsom Prison Blues” in our living room. My Dad was a huge Cash fan and I grew up sitting around the record player with my father, listening to old 45’s of “Hey Porter” and “I Walk the Line”. I remember in the third grade, Mrs. Sills had us all write a one page paper on our favorite song. Unbeknownst to her, she lost major cool points in my book when she told me she’d never heard the song “Big River” by The Highwaymen.

Cash has always been this mythical, larger-than-life sort of figure in my life. When he would sing about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, my imagination fired off into all kinds of outlaw images. When he sang of “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, the result was more powerful than any Gospel meeting or come-to-Jesus discussion with my Mom; truthfully, I’m still a little haunted by the line, “If you want to save your soul from Hell a-riding on our range / Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride.” And when the Man in Black sang “There’ll Be Peace In the Valley”, I believed it.

It was fitting then that this album served as my own personal soundtrack in the aftermath of my grandfather’s passing in 2007. If you know anything about Cash, you know he was always — even in his darkest periods — a gospel singer at heart. Prior to his death, Cash went to the studio to record some of his mother’s favorite gospel hymns, taken directly from her ragged old hymn book. These were the songs Johnny’s mother first taught him as a child in rural Arkansas. Years later, Cash found himself returning to those songs for the peace and comfort they provided him. The record is simple: Cash’s guitar is the only accompaniment to his lived-in baritone. But the stripped-down production really is an exercise of “less is more”; the sparse production allows the lyrics of these great hymns to truly shine.

The older I get, the more I find myself looking back to the faith of my parents and grandparents. With my grandfather in particular, I’m thankful for the simple ethic by which he lived: Family. Good Neighbors. Hard Work. Jesus Christ. These were the core elements of my grandfather’s existence. I’ve said it many times, but I still believe the best sermons I’ve ever heard are the prayers my grandfather would pray before our family meals. I guess that’s why this record resonated so well with me; the simplistic beauty of this recording serves as an audible parallel to my grandfather’s well-lived life. Some of these songs — particularly “I’ll Fly Away” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” — were among my grandfather’s favorites and Cash singing them was balm to my soul in the days following his death. I can see why this was Cash’s favorite album he ever recorded. It’s my favorite one, too.

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