Various Artists: Dressed in Black: A Tribute to Johnny Cash
If there's anyone deserving a birthday extravaganza with lots of presents, it's Johnny Cash, whose 70th birthday has been garnering serious -- and well deserved -- attention. Most notably, Sony-Legacy has re-released a number of Cash albums (e.g., Essential Johnny Cash, Songs of Our Soil, Ballads of the True West, and Silver) in addition to Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden, a never-before-heard 1969 concert.
Cash's most recent gift is Dualtone Records' 18-track Dressed in Black: A Tribute to Johnny Cash, featuring a range of mostly alternative country performers covering some of Cash's signature songs. Through its strengths and weaknesses, Dressed in Black does much to highlight Cash's genius and his influence.
(It's worth mentioning, too, that Cash's former son-in-law Marty Stuart is putting together another tribute album due out this September on Lucky Dog Records, featuring, among others, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris.)
Acting as co-producers on Dressed in Black are Dave Roe, Cash's former stand-up bass player who helped forge Cash's trademark rhythmic sound, and Chuck Mead of BR549. Not only have they produced the album, but Roe and Mead play bass and guitar, respectively, on every track.
First the strengths.
Clearly, it's great to have Roe working with a new generation of musicians, and his signature bass serves as a constant reminder of each song's connection with Johnny Cash. Moreover, Roe and Mead's playing provides the album with a musical-thematic consistency.
But that's also the rub.
Because Roe and Mead keep the historical past so present in each song, artists seem less free to improvise, which is what a great cover is really about: Not rehashing an old song but revising it in ways that enlighten and make connections between two texts, between the past and the present. Too often, that kind of improvisation seems to be missing in Dressed in Black, so some songs suggest the singer is attempting to sound like Johnny Cash, not themselves. That's never a good thing, especially when the original comes from one of the most distinctive stylists in music.
That said, there are some very fine moments on Dressed in Black.
The album kicks off with Hank III's version of "Wreck of the Old '97", which starts out slow and gains speed as quickly as the doomed train. (It's worth adding that W.S. Holland, Cash's former drummer, is driving the beat.) One reason Hank III's cover works so well is that he never attempts to imitate Johnny Cash: Lord knows he's got his own musical demons haunting him. Hank III's version is, first a foremost, the hillbilly-punk blend that's defined his career. And given Cash's relationship with Hank the Elder, the grandson's inclusion, especially on the opening track, is fitting.
Other standout tracks are Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis on the Farina-Marden folk song "Pack Up Your Sorrows", Earl Poole Ball's "I Still Miss Someone", Damon Bramblett's "I'm Gonna Sit on the Porch and Pick on My Old Guitar", and Kenny Vaughan's "Train of Love".
Also worth mentioning is Redd Volkeart's "Luther Played the Boogie", complete with some nice Merle Haggard and the Strangers-esque guitar licks.
Less successful are Dale Watson's "I Walk the Line" and Robbie Fulks' "Cry, Cry, Cry". When covering a Johnny Cash song, an artist needs either to catch Cash's attitude or do their own version, which doesn't always happen here. So, for example, where's Rosie Flores' punk-Rockabilly Filly attitude on "Big River", or the kind of innovation on "I Guess Things Happen That Way" that's become Raul Malo's trademark?
Taking chances is the hallmark of the great alt.country tribute albums: Twisted Willie, Tom T. Hall: Real, and Tulare Dust. Dressed in Black just plays it too safe too often -- something Johnny Cash never did.
Dressed in Black closes, fittingly, with Chris Knight's haunting version of "Flesh and Blood". The song works because of the ways in which Knight makes it his own. Knight's career is predicated on songs that tell the stories of others when they are at their most vulnerable. The pictures are difficult to watch, but Knight never flinches. It's that attitude, one of Cash's signatures as well, that Knight brings to "Flesh and Blood". The sound, though, is all Chris Knight. It is an absolutely perfect conclusion.
Worth noting, too, is the album's artwork with great pictures of Cash (and June Carter) in addition to liner notes in which the singers explain their song choices and admiration for Cash and his music.
In terms of birthday gifts, Man in Black: A Tribute to Johnny Cash is a nice one, not something to be rushed back to the store or hidden in a closet. It's just that the fit isn't quite right.