Various Artists: Johnny’s Blues—A Tribute to Johnny Cash

[18 September 2003]

By Jason MacNeil

Let me start off by saying that the recent MTV Video Awards were a joke for the simple fact that Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” video didn’t clean up. There hasn’t been and possibly never will be another video so poignant and moving given the backdrop of the song and the recent personal trials of “The Man in Black”.

Now, onto this album! The tribute album has been around for as long as there has been vinyl around, with artists taking their own turns on favorites from a given artist. Sometimes these can be mistakes from the onset while others find their own footing and are very good overall. This blues-based outlook on some of Johnny Cash’s finer tracks might have some people raising an eyebrow or even cringing at the notion of 12-bar blues belting “I Walk the Line” or “Get Rhythm”.

But it’s not exactly what you think. The opening “Train of Love” by Paul Reddick and the Sidemen sounds as if the needle has just dropped on the vinyl and caught the band warming up. A lovely slide guitar is bottlenecked while harmonicas are added, making the listener take a long unknown trip on a raft down the Louisiana bayou. The brushes used on the drums is a strong point as Reddick keeps this slow but steady tempo moving along. “Since recording this beautiful song with this very fine band, I have wondered how things might have been if Johnny had hired Mississippi Fred McDowell as the guitar player for the Tennessee Three,” Reddick says in the liner notes. It’s a fine start indeed while one can only imagine the prospect.

“Get Rhythm” doesn’t quite work as well as Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown just gives it a blues-ized version. There’s a jazz swing to it, but the song comes across as being too far towards lounge lizard to make it worth while with a slightly jump swing nature. Benjy Davis is also on the track, but it doesn’t help much. Maria Muldaur lends her raspy roadhouse vocals on “Walking the Blues” as Del Rey plays some mean acoustic guitar blues. “My baby’s got a heart like the cold north wind,” she sings before wanting to walk the blues away. She’s got the blues for sure, but the tune could use just a bit of percussion in it to keep it moving along swimmingly. Even finger snaps or a simple drumbeat or snare drum could do wonders for this in the background. While still a fine effort, it could be better. Chris Thomas King fares far better on “Rock Island Line”. The guitarist from the O Brother Where Art Thou movie and soundtrack talks his way through this song about goats and sheep. As he nicely picks up steam, he winds a very good narrative, although not as good as Cash.

Garland Jeffreys’ version of “I Walk the Line” isn’t bad, but he doesn’t seem to make it his own tune despite the best of intentions. Tony Cedras, the star on this track, has his accordion off in the distance. “Folsom Prison Blues” is the standout track by miles, mainly because Blackie & the Rodeo Kings incorporate the tune to fit their style. A snarling Tom Wilson works well against Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing. It’s a rollicking blues rock effort that Clapton would be capable of at times. Harry Manx’s “Long Black Veil” is a stunning rendition that opens the song up quite nicely. Sleepy LaBeef sounds closest to Cash as he performs the country-cum-rockabilly-cum-blues “Frankie Man’s Johnny”. He, too, can spin a good yarn with his deep vocals.

The last three tracks include an instrumental of “Send A Picture of Mother” by Kevin Breit, who has worked with Harry Manx and also Norah Jones. This is a tropical-meets-mariachi-sounding tune that is relaxing and extremely laid-back. Colin Linden restores the murky blues-rock on the Dylan-esque “Big River”. It wouldn’t be out of line with his Time out of Mind record. Mavis Staples lends her star to the groovy and funky “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, an apt finale for what is a very stellar blues album for the man in black.

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