Bootleg Volume IV: The Soul of Truth is a welcome addition to Sony Legacy's ongoing reissues of Johnny Cash's back catalog, and an interesting complement to the previous releases in the "bootleg" series. Vol. 1 was the closest to a true "bootleg", compiling two discs' worth of solo acoustic numbers recorded by Johnny in his home studio between 1973-1982. Vol. 2 brought together demos, rare singles and b-sides, unreleased tracks, and an early radio program from Johnny's Sun and early Columbia days. Vol. 3, perhaps the weakest of the bunch, is a hodge-podge of live performances, some unreleased with others drawn from easily found live albums (why they chose to include tracks from the recently reissued Pa Osteraker, I'll never know).
Volume IV, however, is a completist's dream. Focusing on Johnny's love of gospel music, it offers three complete, hard-to-find albums in their entirety on two discs, complete with unreleased bonus tracks. Disc one offers up "A Believer Sings the Truth", a 20-track double-album recorded in 1979 and released in 1980 on the small Cachet label. Tracks from that album were released in 1984 on an even smaller label as the "I Believe" album, with four unreleased songs from the same sessions. These four extra tracks, as well as one further unreleased track - "Truth" round out disc 1.
Disc two begins with 12 tracks intended as a 1975 album which was ultimately shelved. One of these came out a few years ago as a bonus track on some editions of the "Ultimate Gospel" compilation, while another was found on a recent Reader's Digest set. Here, now, we have the unnamed album in its entirety! The remainder of the album is the unreleased 1982 album "Johnny Cash - Gospel Singer". 10 of these tracks saw the light of the day as 1986's "Believe in Him" on the Christian label Word Records.
This is the type of release I am delighted to see come out. As a younger Johnny Cash fan, I have scoured used record bins tracking down some of these. While "A Believer Sings the Truth" pops up frequently in junk shops, I searched high and low before finally tracking down an old scratched copy of "Believe in Him" at a used record shop some time ago. I had all but given up hope on ever hearing those four tracks from "I Believe." Here, however, Columbia has given us all of these and more in one set.
As for the music, there are no surprises here. They are typical of Johnny's 1970's and 80's output, i.e., they are very slick-sounding. Some of the 1975 tracks get overblown with syrupy strings, but many of the arrangements are laid-back country done well. The 1979 tracks were a labour of love - recorded at home with his family and friends. While still possessing that sparkly, late 70's sound, there is lots of life in these tunes. The final set is even cleaner sounding, and sounds quite dated, but, again, I appreciate finally having all 14 songs released together. Some of the later tracks, as well, were spared the big arrangements and remain very listenable.
In the end, who should buy this? Definitely completists: you get three full albums with bonus tracks, one of which has never been released, the other two which have never been released on CD. As these weren't originally released on Columbia, they won't be on the forthcoming Complete Columbia Collection, either, so this set makes a nice complement. Also, any lovers of Johnny's gospel music, or Southern gospel in general.
In relation to Cash's other gospel output, these sessions stand alone - Hymns had the 60's echo sound, Hymns from the Heart was filled out with background singers, Precious Memories was treacly sweet, and My Mother's Hymn Book fits nicely into Rick Rubin's re-envisioning of Johnny. These songs are probably an accurate representation of the forgotten Cash - the mid-life man past the rebellion of youth, and the height of stardom, while not yet concerned with his mortality as he would become under Rubin's guidance. Here he was content; happy to record the songs he loved with the people he loved about the God he loved, with no concern as to whether Columbia had any interest in releasing them or not. It's taken them 37 years, but finally they've taken an interest. Thank you Columbia - keep it up!