Various Artists – We Walk the Line (DVD/CD review)

Various Artists – We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash (Sony/Legacy) review

If there is one thing that has become apparent since the death of Johnny Cash back in 2003, it’s that his influence stretches much farther than any genre or age group can contain.  Case in point, We Walk the Line, a star-studded, multi-generational concert salute to Cash who would’ve turned 80 this year, released in a DVD/CD set.

Another thing that is made clear is that Cash is irreplaceable – a one-of-a-kind mix of honesty and magnetism, coupled with one of the most unique voices ever recorded.  But, it’s this uniqueness that makes a tribute like this somewhat problematic – you’re never going to copy Johnny Cash, so what to do?  You can take one of his songs and try and make it your own (something Ruthie Foster has done quite well with “Ring of Fire” on her latest album), or you can attempt to capture the spirit of the original performance.

Not surprising, the artists that seem able to channel that spirit the best are those who were his contemporaries.  Willie Nelson, another singular artist, turns in an excellent reading of the melancholy “I Still Miss Someone,” while Kris Kristofferson’s ragged voice is perfect to tackle “Big River” – when he sings “Well I taught the weeping willow how to cry” he sounds like he means it.

Singer Shelby Lynne’s connection to Cash seems  a little stronger than most of the others in this show.  For one, she played Carrie Cash, Johnny Cash’s mom in 2005‘s Walk the Line movie.  She also wrote a poignant tribute to the passing of both Cash and his wife June in “When Johnny Met June.”  But, like Cash, Lynne’s music, although initially labeled “country,” has existed somewhere outside those boundaries for most of her career.  She seems possessed with her stark reading of “Why Me Lord,” perhaps the words ringing true in her life, as with Cash’s.  She raises her arms at the song’s closing, as if channeling the Man in Black right then and there.

While a lot of Cash’s music had dark undertones, he oftentimes tempered it with a wink in his eye, something that gets lost in some of the translations – it’s not really there in Buddy Miller’s okay run-through of “Hey Porter,” but gets captured quite well in the surprising “Get Rhythm” from Andy Grammer.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops turn on the bombast for “Jackson,” but somehow lose the sexual tension that oozed from Cash’s original duet with future wife June Carter.

The set opens with Brandi Carlisle, who’s career started when she began singing Cash’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box” with her mom at age eight.  Although she’s got a wail of a voice and gives a raucous performance, when she sings “I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die” – it just doesn’t work.  Same goes for Ronnie Dunn, who was one-half of the superstar duo Brooks & Dunn – his take of “Ring of Fire” lacks any of the wide-eyed optimism that permeated the original version. Lucinda Williams manages to make “Hurt” an even more painful a listen than Cash’s.

There are a couple of artists that show a completely different side of their music – Pat Monahan of the multi-platinum group Train gives an uncharacteristic twangy vocal to “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” and then duets with Lynne on the biting “It Ain’t Me Babe,” while Amy Lee, singer for Evanescence, gives chills with her clear high voice on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

The concert was supervised by producer Don Was, who assembled an excellent backup band, including Buddy Miller, who played guitar on the award-winning Raising Sand album from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and adds an ample amount of grit in his solos.  Each song is done with heaping doses of care and love, and the sequencing of the audio CD, featuring a wide range of artists, works as a cohesive listen.  Yet, even the finest performances here still make you want to go back and hear the original – which is probably the point anyway.

The DVD version features in-between song banter from actor Matthew McConaughey, who emcee’s the event.  His introductions are reverent, but slow down the flow of the concert.  There is a great exchange between Sheryl Crow and Willie Nelson, right before they begin “If I Was a Carpenter.”  Crow admits “and I’d definitely have your baby….except” and begins a laundry list of why there won’t be a Crow/Nelson lovechild. Of the bonus material, there’s 15 minutes of artist interviews about Cash’s influence (especially good is a story that Kristofferson tells of Cash running him off his property with a gun).  A fitting tribute to a singer whose legend continues to grow.  –Tony Peters