Ultimate Gospel

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When Johnny Cash first auditioned for Sun Records owner Sam Phillips in 1954, he presented himself as a gospel singer. He was soon sidetracked into a career in secular music, but he regularly returned to the spirituals with which he began.

These 24 tracks (three previously unreleased) demonstrate that his approach to gospel music was as consistent as his commitment to spreading the Good Word. The songs here span the years between 1957 and 1981, but the nonchronological sequencing points up the unvarying clarity and strength of his interpretations. Throughout the changes in his life and art, these songs were clearly his North Star.

But Ultimate? Not quite. A Cash gospel collection worthy of that superlative would have to rope in the Man in Black’s 1990s and 2000s spirituals, when the age in his voice filled songs like “Wayfaring Stranger” and “The Man Comes Around” with intimations of mortality, even as the words he sang expressed an abiding faith in a life beyond.

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