When I first got this CD in the mail I was a little taken aback at the idea of a bunch of people getting together and recording Johnny Cash songs. It felt too much like someone trying to take the place of a beloved uncle and tell all the stories he told. Of course once I listened to the CD I realized I was mistaken in the fear that the only thing that makes a Johnny Cash song great is his signaling of it, and it also reminded me why Cash is an icon. His popularity has less to do with his physical presence and more to do with his spiritual presence. There is a universal feeling Cash’s songs that transcends his grasp and is up for grabs for any singer who can feel the spirit of Cash in the words they sing. Harry Manx, one of the artist featured says of Cash that he “manages to carry the whole history of country music in his songs, all the while doing it in his own unique way.” I could probably have saved myself a paragraph of writing if I had just quoted Manx from the start.Northern Blues has done a great job of collecting just such a set of singers for, Johnny’s Blues, their tribute to the man in black. All of the artists have their own take on the blues. From Rockabilly, to old-timey, to lounge, to regge tinged blues this CD manages to show the scope and flexibility of Cash’s music more than either of the recent Cash tributes, Kindred Spirits and Dressed in Black. The thing that separate this recording from the others is that even though it’s based in the blues, all the artists pepper the songs with their own style so each song cleans your musical palate for the next one and you’re never bored. Just when the gin joint version of “Get Rhythm” ends after getting you in the easy breezy mood, the acoustic Maria Muldaur cover of “Walking the Blues” comes in and takes you on a internal tour of heartbreak.Due to the miracle of e-mail I was able to ask a few of the artist, who are located all over the globe, some questions about their feeling for the spirit of Johnny Cash.Benjy Davis, who performs with Clarence “Gaemouth” Brown on a cover of “Get Rhythm” that makes you want to get up and dance swing style all night long. Paul Reddick, who does a straight on funky backwoods version of “Train of Love” that you would expect to hear while knocking back some moonshine at a riverside bar.Chris Thomas King who covers “Rock Island Line” a traditional song which Cash arranged. King’s version which see saws brilliantly between traditional story ballad and modern folk.Garland Jeffreys, choosing to cover “I Walk the Line”, is perhaps the bravest of the artist I talked to. He stayed faithful to the Cash rendition of the song in praise of what he calls Cash’s mastery of “integrity and simplicity,” but still manages to give it an almost punk sensibility.Corey Harris has perhaps the most unique cover. Using West African instruments and a reggae beat he has created a haunting cover of “Redemption” that makes you feel like you’re attending a religious event.Paul Reddick’s foot stomping version “Train of Love” gives us a piece of music fueled by an upright guitar and an electric dobro that makes you want to suck down some whiskey by the riverside and dance to this song about “everybodies baby but mine comin’ home.Carlye Archibeque: Did you select which song you would cover on the CD. If not, how was it decided and which song would have been your first choice; if you did chose the song why did you chose the one you did?Benjy Davis: No. I got an e-mail from my manager asking me if I wanted to record a song by Johnny Cash and I said, hell yeah so he sent me the words and I learned them. I would like to have have done ‘Hurt’ which he just covered by Nine Inch Nails. It’s awesome.Corey Harris: Yes.Garland Jeffreys: Yes, I picked the song. It was presented to me as a project I couldn’t resist. I went through a list of songs and listened to a CD of his music to see what would work. I tried one other, but picked “I Walk The Line” because it was a classic and because it seemed to fit my style best. I hope I did it justice.Chris Thomas King: Yes, I did. I chose it because I liked Johnny’s version of it, but I had also played Leadbelly in [a production of] “Good Night Irene” in 2002 and I really loved Leadbelly’s style of folk music. Johnny’s version was about New Orleans and I liked that because I’m from there. So, I thought it was a good chance to combine Johnny’s New Orleans version and Leadbelly’s version.Paul Reddick: Colin Linden, the records producer, who also played on the track, suggested this tune to me.
CA: Can you tell me a little about your introduction to Johnny Cash. Can you remember the first time you heard a Johnny Cash song and what it was; can you remember the first time you “felt” a Johnny Cash song?
BD: I had a roommate at boarding school that introduced me. Other than that just random songs in the background at a restaurant. My roommate showed me ‘Ring of Fire’ and I felt that. It’s a great song.
CH: The first Johnny Cash song I heard was “I Walk the Line.” I remember digging his smooth vocal delivery on that tune. The first time I ever felt a Johnny Cash tune was when I heard “Redemption” while preparing for this record. I was taken by the lyrics, and knew that I wanted to record the tune.
GJ: I think I first heard Johnny Cash in the 60s on the radio, but when I really focused on him as a singer and as a force was when he duetted with one of my favorite artists of all time, Bob Dylan, on [Dylan’s 1969 album] Nashville Skyline. I’ve always been impressed with the sound of Cash’s voice, because it’s powerful. It can’t be confused with someone else’s voice.
CTK: The earliest thing I can recall is being a very young kid and hearing his music in movies. I think he was an actor, wasn’t he? “A Boy Named Sue” and “I Walked the Line” – his music was used in films prominently. I wasn’t really familiar with him as an artist when I was a kid, but he wasn’t just a folk or country artist, he crossed over and he was everywhere, his music was everywhere. It wasn’t until in the last few years when he started recording other people’s songs, like U2 and other bands, that I took notice of him as an artist, really. I had heard his songs and they didn’t connect as a kid, but in the 90s as he covered others’ songs it caught my attention and I gained a lot of respect for him. The way he could take these popular songs and make them his own.
PR: My parents had the Live at San Quentin album when I was a kid, as well Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan – Johnny sings on that, and wrote the liner notes for it. I think “I walk the line” was the first Johnny song I really listened to – was amazed by, I heard this on the radio when I was about 9. 1971.
CA: Did you feel nervous recording a song that had already been done by an artist who is so revered?
GJ: No, I didn’t. It was so, in a way, a left-field kind of thing for me to do because I’m not a country artist. But I do have a versatile voice, and when I look back, I think it worked. So, no, I wasn’t nervous.
CH: not really, since I changed the tune to fit my style, which I very different from the original. I chose “Redemption” because I thought I could do something different with it than had been done before.
PR: No, I loved doing the song, I could hear the bluesy ness of Johnny’s singing, most of the words are sung sliding up or down the note, like a slide guitar – that determined my choosing to do the song in the style of Fred McDowell. A great song is a pleasure to sing, and easy to sing.
CA: Do you have a song that you would like to see Cash cover? What is it and how do you imagine his style enhancing it?
BD: ‘No Rain’ by Blind Melon. He could pull it off. I don’t know how but he could.
CH: I don’t really have any songs that I would like to see Johnny Cash cover.
GJ: Yes, my song “Matador” which is my biggest hit, especially in the European markets. It’s a long song, and quite spiritual, but in a unique way. It’s obviously in tune with Cash’s life right now, a difficult time for him with his wife’s recent passing and his own body not as strong as it used to be. I think “Matador” would be good for him because it calls on a certain kind of strength from a spiritual force – not any particular god or organized religion or anything – but a universal energy.
CTK: I’d like to hear him cover my song “Wanna Die With a Smile on My Face” because I think he’d bring out the essence of the song. The lyric is a love song about a man longing to be with a woman he can’t be with, but if they’re together, he’s at peace. So he’s got that big smile. I think Johnny could bring out the essence of the song like that.
PR: I would like him to cover something from the new Bob Dylan CD. Johnny’s stark clarity would go so well with Dylan’s poetry.
CA: If you could narrow down Cash’s appeal to a single word, what would that word be? BD: