Originally included as part of the exhaustive Unearthed box set of Johnny Cash's American Records recordings, My Mother's Hymn Book is exactly what it claims to be – songs directly out of Cash's mother's old hymnal. Featuring Cash alone playing an acoustic guitar, this is a stark, beautiful, and simple album. In the liner notes, Cash calls this his favorite record he's ever made and it's clear that learning these songs as a child is what inspired his love of music. In that sense, despite no original material, these are some of the most personal songs Cash ever recorded; he even includes song-by-song commentaries that help illuminate what each track meant to him. For Merle Travis' "I Am a Pilgrim" Cash writes, "It's one of those old country gospel classics that my mother sang, that I knew I would record it someday." Of course, Cash recorded gospel songs before this album, as in 1959 with Hymns by Johnny Cash and again in 1962 with Hymns From the Heart and he usually included one gospel track per album.
Compiled and designed in the manner of Love, Murder, and God, three thematically compiled Johnny Cash anthologies released to wide acclaim in the spring of 2000, Life brings together 18 songs from Cash's back catalog that in one way or another deal with the nuts and bolts of many people's existence – home, nation, work, family, surviving hard times, and celebrating good times. Of course, the nature of this theme is broader and not nearly as cleanly defined as the themes of the three previous sets, and a few of these songs might have fared better elsewhere – "Where Did We Go Right" and "You're the Nearest Thing to Heaven" would have fit nicely on Love, while "I Talk to Jesus Everyday" and "Lead Me Gently Home" would not feel out of place on God. But as a summation of the broad and idiosyncratic worldview of Johnny Cash, Life fares very well indeed; Cash could set a protest song like "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" or "Man in Black" next to the fiercely patriotic "Ragged Old Flag" and see no contradiction, and celebrate the importance of hard work ("Country Trash") while savoring the sweet prospect of punching out the boss ("Oney").
While Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, the 1968 album that made Cash a household word, spent only two weeks at No. 1, this 1969 follow-up topped the charts for 20 weeks. As with Folsom, the San Quentin LP had to be edited due to space limitations. Now, 31 years after the fact, the show can at last be heard in true perspective. All the original performances hold up, including the album's hit single: Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue," presented unbleeped for the first time. Equally impressive are the eight restored tracks and unexpurgated between-song patter. Cash's opening renditions of "Big River" and "I Still Miss Someone" are bracing. So are four closing songs teaming Cash with his complete performing troupe (the Carter Family, Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers). Their gospel performances ("He Turned the Water into Wine," "The Old Account," and an early version of "Daddy Sang Bass") are electrifying, as is a concluding medley featuring everyone. Cash is presented here at his roaring, primal best.