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Various Artists: Kindred Spirits: A Tribute To The Songs Of Johnny Cash

Album: Kindred Spirits: A Tribute To The Songs Of Johnny Cash
Label: Sony

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Johnny Cash's songs are so structurally and melodically simple that artists who cover them have ample room to interpret. Yet of the two new Johnny Cash tribute albums, only Kindred Spirits takes chances. The collection features a high quotient of rock and country heavyweights—Dwight Yoakam, Hank Williams Jr., Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan, to name four—and though a few give Cash's songs the same bottom-heavy chug and light instrumental adornment of the originals, most show some personality. Cash's daughter, Rosanne Cash, makes the ballad "I Still Miss Someone" into a slinky showcase for her weepy vocal, Little Richard barrels through "Get Rhythm," Travis Tritt marries "I Walk The Line" to the countrypolitian shape of Charlie Rich's "Life's Little Ups And Downs," and Dylan sings "Train Of Love" as though it were one of his own dreamy, cascading blues numbers. Meanwhile, on the rival Cash-inspired collection Dressed In Black, Hank Williams III leads off with a smoking rendition of "Wreck Of The Old 97," and the country scion's reverential twang heralds a set of doggedly faithful covers. Dressed In Black's contributors make up a who's-who of insurgent country: Robbie Fulks, Rodney Crowell, Reverend Horton Heat, Bruce Robison, Chris Knight, and more. But what makes these musicians Nashville outlaws is their adherence to traditional C&W values, and it just may be their bad luck that putting a honky-tonk vibe into songs that already possess one doesn't impress much. On the other hand, it never hurts to hear "Cry Cry Cry" and "There You Go" sung well and played crisply, especially since Kindred Spirits' more freely imagined performances aren't always successful: Keb' Mo's Robert Johnson-style treatment of "Folsom Prison Blues," for example, loses the inexorable, locomotive quality of Cash's bone-chilling original. Whatever their relative merits, the best moment in either project arrives on Kindred Spirits, when Janette Carter sings "Meet Me In Heaven," complete with an appearance by Cash himself. There, he reclaims his words and puts them back into their best context: his own weathered voice.