Johnny Cash released more than half a dozen gospel albums during his career, beginning with 1959's Hymns by Johnny Cash, and he scattered gospel tunes throughout his other works as well. A deeply religious man, he sang his songs of praise with as much, or perhaps more, conviction as he did his secular material -- even the most skeptical non-believer would have to appreciate the honesty and soul of Cash's gospel recordings. Cash: Ultimate Gospel collects 24 of his best, most drawn from his Columbia catalog with a pair ("I Was There When It Happened" and "Belshazzar") emanating from Cash's early Sun Records period, and two ("Oh Come, Angel Band" and "Children Go Where I Send Thee") originally on the Cachet label. Three tracks on the set are previously unreleased: a moving reading of "How Great Thou Art," that rivals Elvis Presley's, "It Is No Secret What God Can Do," and "My Ship Will Sail." As with all of Cash's music, there is a realism and warmth to his delivery; Cash's spiritual music is saccharine-free and naked in its emotions, non-preachy and devoid of hellfire in its words -- he's out to tell a story, not to convert. Cash: Ultimate Gospel is sequenced in a non-chronological manner, which works to its benefit -- the songs flow together beautifully, so that the transition from a polished '70s track such as "The Preacher Said 'Jesus Said'" to the more minimalist "I Was There When It Happened" (from 1957) isn't jarring in the least. Some of the songs here are traditional and well-known to all ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Amazing Grace"), while others have a distinctive Cash stamp on them ("Daddy Sang Bass," the Cash-June Carter Cash duet on the Carter Family's "Far Side Banks of Jordan"). All told, it's as rich and rewarding a collection of Johnny Cash music as any other.
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AllMusic Review by Jeff Tamarkin