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We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash

Followers of country music understandably claim Johnny Cash as their own, and yet you can’t tie the man to any particular musical hitching post. A rebel and an original, Johnny simply and unselfconsciously drew from any well that quenched his thirst.

It was seemingly with that in mind that the lineup for last April’s We Walk the Line tribute concert was selected. Of the diverse artist roster, perhaps only one—Ronnie Dunn—was plucked from country’s mainstream. And while Ronnie turns in a dandy, by-the-numbers rendition of “Ring of Fire,” the lion’s share of this live recording is peopled with a ragtag bunch from the realms of rock, pop, progressive country and roots music, most of whom take a looser approach to the material they cover here.

It’s all in keeping with the tone of a live performance, particularly one staged in Austin, a city known for a freewheeling attitude among its music community. The energy collectively generated by the enthusiastic crowd, guest stars and handpicked band (led by Americana mainstay Buddy Miller, whose manic guitar rumble provides numerous live-wire moments) is palpable on rip-roaring versions of such classic Cash tracks as “Big River” (sung by Kris Kristofferson), “Wreck of the Old 97” (Rhett Miller), a feisty turn on “Jackson” (Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Brandi Carlile’s gritty opening salvo, “Folsom Prison Blues.”

A potent argument for the inclusion of artists off the country radar, if one is even required, is made on soul-popper Andy Grammer’s lithe and lively New Orleans treatment of “Get Rhythm.” Willie Nelson’s show-closing appearance, in tandem with some of the show’s other bigger names, lends the event a king-sized dose of credibility. 

Because Cash’s stylistic reach was so long-limbed, it’s appropriate that the concert also included songs he recorded that were better known by other artists, though some of these numbers cause this set to falter at times. Between the fact that, for example, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is a signature Hank Williams tune, and that it’s sung by an ethereal pop singer (Evanescence’s Amy Lee) makes it—and tracks like it— perhaps one too many times removed from the real reason for this celebration. 

To straight-line Cash devotees, this project’s approach may seem irreverent; if it is, it’s only to a small degree, and yet irreverence is the very ingredient that Johnny Cash himself would perhaps appreciate most. Honor is indeed due and present in spades on We Walk the Line, but the most fitting and energizing moments are the ones when it’s the high-wire, not just the line, that’s being walked.

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