Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that you have to have grown up in the south to appreciate Bootleg Vol. IV: The Soul of Truth, the first release in Johnny Cash’s 80th birthday celebration by Columbia/Legacy, I would say that there’s something essential about southern music that you have to understand. I have in mind the backdrop of southern music, the reference point for both black people and white people — gospel music. For both black people and white people in the south, the gospel music that they hear every Sunday morning in churches that range from store fronts to modern cathedrals is a defining experience. That is to say, it defines what they expect from music.
The power of gospel music is such that southern singers, or singers with a southern heritage, have often been torn between gospel music and whatever form of popular music they sing (soul, rhythm and blues, rock and roll). It was this tension between God’s music and the devil’s music that practically tore Little Richard apart, for example.
Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, and the various members of the Supremes learned to sing hymns before they learned to sing anything else. To the people in Memphis, but surely not to the people in New York or Los Angeles, it makes perfect sense that the Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis) would gather around the piano and sing hymns during recording breaks at Sun Studios.
That’s why it’s important to notice that the second cut on disc one of this remarkable Johnny Cash collection is “Gospel Boogie (A Wonderful Time Up There).” It seems perfectly reasonable to the southerner to combine gospel and boogie, since these styles are floating around in their heads all the time. As the title suggests, a number of the songs here are hymns, or are hymn-like. The collection includes, for example, “I’ve Got Jesus in My Soul,” “I’m a Newborn Man,” “This Train Is Bound for Glory” and similar titles. Johnny also included “The Old Rugged Cross,” a hymn that many southerners know by heart. It’s a fundamentalist favorite, like “Just as I Am.” Then, too, some of the songs that aren’t hymns as such have gospel qualities; a song called “That’s Enough” combines a blues piano with a gospel chorus.
In short, this is the southern Johnny Cash, not the Johnny Cash of the movie Walk the Line. Although that was a wonderful movie, and Reese Witherspoon surely deserved her Oscar for her part in it, it was a movie that—for perfectly understandable reasons—presented the secular Johnny Cash. The Soul of Truth gives us Johnny Cash the believer. That matters, because it’s become obvious in the years after his death what a great performer he was. He was a great American performer, not just a country singer. He deserves to be understood in depth, and that’s what this collection helps us to do.