Fifty years ago this October, Johnny Cash released Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, a concept album that turned its back on virtually everything else that was happening in country music — from countrypolitan arrangements to the Bakersfield sound — and blazed its own trail. The songs were stark and sparse, built around stories about the plight of the Native American. Congress had just passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, looking to improve the lives of African Americans after decades of segregation and injustice, and Cash hoped his new songs could draw attention to a similar human rights issue.
Half a century later, all it takes is a glance at the latest Ferguson-related headlines to know that discrimination is still alive in America. That's why the timing couldn't be better for a record like Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited, a tribute album that reinterprets Cash's original tracklist for a different generation. Americana heavyweights like Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Steve Earle, and Norman and Nancy Blake all contribute to the album, which hits stores today. The Milk Carton Kids and the Carolina Chocolate Drops' Rhiannon Giddens make appearances, too, representing the newer crop of diverse, guitar-toting folkies who've found influence in Cash's lesser-known material.
"I'm not a fan of the whole 'tribute album compilation' thing, where people sent in the separate tracks via email," says producer Joe Henry, who recently recorded albums with Bonnie Raitt and Billy Bragg before turning his attention to Look Again to the Wind. "I don't think that's full engagement. That's not the best way to conjure a song into a living thing. We recorded everything on this album live, in three and a half days, with a lot of overlap between bands and singers. Most of what we kept were first takes. If you want your record to sound like a lot of people playing in a circle in a room, discovering music simultaneously, then the best way to do that is to create that situation."
Henry began creating the situation in his South Pasadena basement in late January. Kris Kristofferson had flown into town to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys. Gibbons was in the area, too, as were Welch and Rawlings. Together, the group spent an entire day at Henry's house, recording songs from Bitter Tears in a collaboration, tag-team fashion. Two weeks later, Henry flew to Nashville and got the group together again, this time adding Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, the Milk Carton Kids, famed flatpicker Norman Blake and other Cash disciples to the mix. The beefed-up roster spent two days at Sound Emporium, built by the late Cowboy Jack Clement, where they finished everything apart from Bill Miller's rendition of the title track.
"I like to think it was sort of how the original sessions must have felt," says Welch, who — along with Rawlings — appears on six different songs. "It was this confluence, this coming together of current acoustic musicians, and it all fell together so naturally. We've never been a band before, but as soon as we got into a room, it sure felt like a band. Picture it: there we are, Nancy [Blake] is doing her song, and they want some oohs to come from other voices. Emmy[lou] and I are there, too, so I guess we're gonna sing on "The Talking Leaves!" There were so many question marks about how this record was actually going to happen, but once you put all these people into the same room, you knew it was gonna be ok."
There's been no shortage of tribute albums hitting the country market this summer, from Nashville Outlaws: A Tribute to Mötley Crüe to the upcoming Doobie Brothers duets record, Southbound. Even so, Look Again to the Wind feels different somehow. Weightier, even. It's reverent and wholly respectful of the source material, and the liberties that are taken — particularly Welch and Rawlings' transformation of the kickoff track, "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow," from Cash's spoken-word piece into a harmony-driven song with "a very Woody Guthrie-type melody" — are all worthwhile makeovers. (Hear it below.) Taken as a whole, Look Again to the Wind functions as both a salute to the Man in Black and a social commentary of racial problems that continue to plague the country.
"I sense as much division and rancor at this moment as in any time in my life, and I was a young boy in the South in the early Sixties," says Henry. "When Johnny made his album, he was very struck — and felt personally challenged — by the fact that during the height of the civil rights movement, people couldn't equate what was happening to Native Americans with what had been happening to African Americans. To him, it was all a civil rights issue. I think it's crucial that people are reminded that these issues are still unresolved."
"Johnny is an important navigational star in our sky, and that's had a huge impact on us," adds Welch. "I opened for him a couple of times in Nashville. He was, in my book, everything you could've wished him to be. He was so gracious. The first time we met was at this park south of Nashville — an outdoor gig. [Dave and I] had played, and Johnny had been listening to us while going around the perimeter of the fencing and shaking hands with every person who wanted to talk to him. The stagehands had to come get him and say, 'John, you have to go onstage now,' and he stopped and told the fans, 'I'm sorry; I have to go onstage now, but I'll come back when I'm done.' And he did. He came back and shook every hand he could. I hope that I learned things from him. I think I did."