With 'Kindred Spirits' Cash Himself Has The Last Word

This appeared in The Tennessean - September 25, 2002

Johnny Cash turned 70 years old this annum, and plenty of folks are pausing to consider his monumental impact on American popular music. Sony/Legacy has released a slew of classic Cash albums, and dozens of musician friends and admirers have contributed to two tribute albums: the Dave Roe and Chuck Mead-produced Dressed In Black and the Marty Stuart-produced Kindred Spirits.

Dressed In Black features numerous underground heroes of roots music (Dale Watson, Robbie Fulks, etc.), while Kindred Spirits focuses on the superstar set (Dylan, Springsteen, Hank Williams Jr. and others), and the projects seem to complement each other, rather than compete.

"The other record is just as valid, just as poignant," Stuart said of Dressed In Black. "I love that record, and those guys are swinging from a great place." Mead returned the compliment and said, "There's enough different that people can get both records and get something out of both of them. I think they're companion pieces, in a way.

''I don't know a lot about what Johnny Cash thinks,'' said Marty Stuart, producer of a just-released Cash tribute called Kindred Spirits. ''But I do know that he's proud of his songs.''

With that in mind, Stuart set out to create an album that would shine a spotlight on those songs, a collection that would underscore Cash's reputation as, in Stuart's words, a ''Stephen Foster-level writer.''

Stuart — who has been off the country music charts since his critically acclaimed, commercially disastrous The Pilgrim bowed in 1999 — had a major-label budget and a bevy of A-list music stars at his disposal, yet he said the success of Kindred Spirits could only be gauged by one man.

''I knew the bottom line with this record was, I had to sit down and play it for Johnny Cash, and I had to look him in the eye while he was listening. When I did play it for him and the verdict came in the form of handshakes, smiles and tears on both sides, I knew my job was done and the results were in.''

Two of the tracks — Bob Dylan's take on "Train of Love" and Bruce Springsteen's plaintive, solo-acoustic version of "Give My Love to Rose" — were taken from a tribute special that ran in 1999 on TNT. The rest of the lot was recorded with Stuart at the production helm, and the performances range from Dwight Yoakam's propulsive, hyper-billy "Understand Your Man" to the trio of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris doing a sweet, hopeful "Flesh & Blood." Even R&B legend Little Richard appears, blasting through a maniacal "Get Rhythm."

''That Little Richard cut was one of my pet tracks,'' Stuart said. ''When I see him on talk shows or whatever, I see a sleeping giant. Usually, he does abbreviated performances and then plugs whatever he's plugging. But I still recognize the genius in there. I figured he's like a Fender Telecaster guitar: it does one thing really, really good. I wanted to plug Richard back into his greatness, musically.''

Bluesman Keb' Mo' at first declined to sing "Folsom Prison Blues," saying he was disturbed by the lyrics.

''He said, 'That's a good song, but I can't sing it,' '' Stuart recalled. ''He said, 'That line about ''I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,'' that turns my stomach.' I said, 'I understand that, so let's change it.' We recorded it, and he changed the line to 'They say I shot a man in Reno, but that was just a lie.' We got it down on the first take, and I said, 'Let me tell you about that line you just changed: That's one of the most sacred lines in country music.' ''

Stuart took the track to longtime Cash cohort, songwriter, producer and friend Cowboy Jack Clement, a man who has been around Cash since the 1950s. Clement, who often pontificates that ''there are two kinds of people: those that know about Johnny Cash and like his music, and those that will,'' heard Keb' Mo's version and said, ''You know, I always thought that line could use a little work.''

To Stuart's way of thinking, the most important tracks are the ones with family connections. Johnny's daughter, Rosanne Cash, presents "I Still Miss Someone" in sad but lovely form, and wife June Carter Cash guests on a track featuring cousin Janette Carter: "Meet Me in Heaven." Cash himself sings some lines toward the end of the song, providing the album's formidable last word.

''Having him at the end said to me, 'All you babies did real good trying, but this is how it's done,' '' Stuart said. ''And his voice, it just has all that authority to it. You know, the whole Johnny Cash thing isn't something that can be turned on and off. If he's fishing on a creek bank, the fish have to notice his charisma. That's probably what draws them to his hook.''

By Peter Cooper

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