Johnny's Blues: A Tribute to Johnny Cash

Various Artists

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Johnny's Blues: A Tribute to Johnny Cash Review

by Andrew Hamlin

Effectively honoring an amazing song from an amazing performer requires that you kick against the grass marking the steps of the master. Cash's country music re-oriented toward its blues element gives kickers a general direction for a collection hitting more shin than soup├žon. Paul Reddick's "Train of Love" whirs into life on its master tape capstan and jumps track 13 seconds in a show of off-roading; "I have wondered," he ponders in the liner notes, "how things might have been if Johnny had hired Mississippi Fred McDowell (Luther Perkins is chopped liver?) as the guitar player for the Tennessee Three." Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown joins forces with Benjy Davis to swing out "Get Rhythm," taking turns sounding agreeably road-wearied. Chris Thomas King tunes his 12-string guitar "down to B flat standard, which is the way Leadbelly played it," and recasts "Rock Island Line" as a talking blues, which it almost was anyway, then skates away on the train engineer's cheer at cheating the toll (though no one ever asks whether the burned toll man's waiting for him on the return trip). Faced with doing over a perfect song with a perfect arrangement, Garland Jeffreys brilliantly deduces that a little more makes a lot more, and filigrees "I Walk the Line" in accordion and a more pronounced "boom-chicka-boom." Harry Manx's "Long Black Veil" shimmers under his predictable but effective slide guitar and surprising touches of Indian instrumentation, plus desperate gospel-fueled backing vocals, stripping finality from tone, turning the song over into an unsolved mystery. OK, Alvin Youngblood Hart doesn't sound like he knows what he's doing on "Sunday Morning Coming Down"; he asks "Well, who hasn't been there?" in the notes, and the problem is he sounds like almost everybody else who's been there. But then along comes Sleepy LaBeef, sounding like his voice went down one half-step for each of his 68 years, singing "Frankie's Man Johnny" like no one ever told him it wasn't his. Don't settle for walking if you can swoosh.

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