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Cash (left) and Williams/Photos by Getty Images

Spiritual notes

Music | Noteworthy new Williams tribute and Cash collection have edifying endings

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

One day after his son made headlines by inadvertently comparing President Obama to Hitler, Hank Williams himself was back in the news-58 years after his alcohol-related death at the age of 29.

The occasion was The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams (Columbia/Egyptian), a collection of 12 country, rock, and pop performers singing compositions that Williams didn't live to finish.

Sony had originally asked Bob Dylan to set the lyrics to music and to record the entire album. Dylan, however, settled for doing one song, "The Love That Faded," a lament especially well suited to his unique, splinters-and-all delivery. He then sought out other kindred spirits to complete the rest.

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One of those "spirits," Hank Williams Jr.'s daughter Holly, is literally kindred. So perhaps it's inevitable that her slow waltz "Blue Is My Heart" sounds like a song to the grandfather she never knew rather than a song to a lover who threw her over.

And perhaps the irresistibility of setting Williams' lyrics to 3/4 time is inevitable too, as five other Lost Notebooks acts-Dylan, Norah Jones, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell, Levon Helm, Sheryl Crow-follow in Holly Williams' steps. The result is an album that feels both old-timey and sad even when its lyrics, as in the case of Lucinda Williams' aching "I'm So Happy I Found You," celebrate bliss.

An exception is "The Sermon on the Mount," which Williams probably intended to record under his gospel-music pseudonym "Luke the Drifter." As sung in two no-nonsense minutes by Merle Haggard, it cuts to the quick and ends the album on a spiritually edifying note.

Because it begins in 1956 and concludes in 1979, Columbia/Legacy's latest collection of previously unreleased Johnny Cash recordings, Bootleg 3: Live Around the World, ends on a spiritually edifying note too.

Granted, hearing Cash "live around the world" isn't as exciting as hearing him live at Folsom Prison or San Quentin, but that says more about the audiences than it does about him. "Here's a song called 'I'll Never Forget Ol' Whatsername,'" he cracks on Disc One before launching into "The Rebel-Johnny Yuma." Later: "No, I don't drink anymore-I don't drink any less, but ..."

By Disc Two he was re-born and being introduced by President Nixon at the White House as an American treasure. Then the Jesus Movement hit, and he was singing "Jesus Was a Carpenter" and "He Turned the Water into Wine"-"religious songs," he tells a crowd, "that [say] something for the people of today." Judging from the response, Cash was right.

But by 1990, 11 years after Bootleg 3 leaves off, the audience for Cash-sung songs, religious or otherwise, had dwindled. So he undertook the spoken word and accepted Thomas Nelson Publishers' invitation to read the entire New Testament in the New King James Version.

Freshly reissued as Johnny Cash Reads the New Testament (Signature Series), the 16-disc, 19-plus-hour box set could not have re-arrived at a better time. To an age undergoing petrifaction with the silica of 24/7 newspeak, Cash's steady, husky, Arkansas-accented reading of the most influential and direct literature in the English language cuts like a double-edged saw.

There are minor pleasures too, such as finally hearing the New Testament's polysyllabic Semitic names pronounced correctly. But it's the accumulating force of hearing the New Testament's major themes that makes the recording sound like Cash's greatest hit.

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