The Legacy of “The Man in Black” is one that will truly live forever. Johnny Cash is one of those guys who, time and time again over the course of his career managed to reinvent himself and stay relevant every step of the way. As with most career artists though, if you dig a little deeper than the greatest hits – that’s where the true gold lies. In 1964, Cash released a concept record about the native custodians of his homeland called Bitter Tears: Ballads of The American Indian and this month – courtesy of some of country music’s finest (Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and Cash’s bandmate from The Highwaymen Kris Kristofferson) lovingly revisit the record and the result, Look Again To The Wind: Bitter Tears Revisited is a reverent collection of which the man himself would be proud.
It opens with Gillian Welch and her longtime offsider David Rawlings taking on the 9-minute As Long As The Grass Shall Grow. It definitely has a more gentle feel that draws more from the traditions of folk than the “hard-country” for which Cash was known and loved, but it’s a beautiful rendition with just enough twang to keep purists happy. Emmylou Harris and The Milk Carton Kids’ is similarly tender and Harris’ immortal husk lends an authenticity to Apache Tears before Steve Earle makes no bones about the fact he’s on a Johnny Cash tribute album with his Appalachian bluegrass version of Custer.
Nancy Blake (wife of Americana legend Norman Blake) teams up with the eerie, lilting harmonies of Welch, Rawlings and Harris for the spoken-word The Talking Leaves which gorgeously upholds the central tenet of country music: Good, honest storytelling. The same goes for the unmistakable, road-weathered rasp of Kris Kristofferson on The Ballad of Ira Hayes – there’s absolutely nothing disingenuous about his delivery and his relationship with Cash during his life brings a truth to the song that nothing else could.
Norman Blake himself appears with his wife and the rest of the star-studded Bitter Tears Revisited chorus line for a great take on Drums before Welch and Rawlings reprise Apache Tears with a largely instrumental, sparse and haunting arrangement. The Milk Carton Kids take on White Girl with a wonderfully lazy, Sunday-afternoon-on-the-front-porch feel that belies its racially heavy lyrical content.
Founding Carolina Chocolate Drops member Rhiannon Giddens’ quivering howl gives Cash’s original album closer The Vanishing Race the gravitas it deserves and the dusty, minimal instrumentation gives the lyrics room to resonate as we have to assume the undisputed king of country intended. After another reprise (this time of opener As Long As The Grass Shall Grow) posing the perennial question of Country Music; “Will the circle be unbroken”, the set concludes sentimentally with Wisconsin Native-American singer Bill Miller taking on the title track with a sincerity and purity that, when contextualized, brings you to tears.
It’s a pretty safe assumption that Johnny himself would be incredibly proud of how this album turned out. Unlike a lot of “tribute” collections, it’s audible on every single song that this was not a shameless cash-grab, but more an homage to a truly great man and the ideals he stood for in life. His legacy lives on.