BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Johnny Cash was obviously more than a musical icon. He was a pioneer, a crusader, an outlaw, and a man wholly devoted to the cause of freedom, both for himself and for those underserved by society. In 1964, that mostly meant African Americans. But Cash had a larger vision for humanity, that of the need to recognize the indignities and injustices inflicted on Native Americans. It was the basis for Bitter Tears, an album that went so against the grain that his record company balked and refused to effectively promote it. According to Joe Henry’s astute liner notes contained in this exceptional return, it was a bitterness and disappointment Cash carried with him for the remainder of his life.
It’s appropriate then that on the fiftieth anniversary of this landmark album — landmark not only in its social significance but also in its return to Cash’s rootsy origins — that Henry would assemble an impressive cast of musical A-listers to pay tribute. Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, Milk Carton Kids, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Norman Blake — one of the last survivors of those origin sessions — provide an all-star song by song recreation of this bleak and often heartbreaking narrative, each rendering their individual songs with the poignancy and perspective Cash originally intended. Cash’s mother-in-law Mother Maybelle Carter bought the influence of her traditional trappings to Cash’s music, and happily that’s reaffirmed here throughout. No modern methods spoil the sound as it was originally recorded. As a result, Welch and Rawlings’ take on “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow,” Emmylou’s version of “Apache Tears,” Kristofferson’s driven, determined “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” and Blake’s rugged rendition of “Drums” all do justice to the folksy homilies that accompany these tragic tales of the American Indian’s ignominy at the hands of those that took their land and their rights along with it.
Half a century later, Look Again to the Wind serves as a stirring homage to an album that remains as daring and defiant now as it was when it was first offered to an indifferent populace. Hopefully, this tender tribute will finally get it the recognition that eluded it originally.
DOWNLOAD: “Apache Tears,” “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow”