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Published: 2012/08/08
by Brian Robbins

Various Artists
We Walk The Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash

Legacy Recordings

Recorded live this past April at The Moody Theater in Austin, TX, We Walk The Line is just exactly as advertised: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash. The soundtrack album (DVD and Blu-ray versions of the event are available) offers 20 Cash tunes that The Man In Black either penned himself or put his own stamp on in the course of his career – done up right by a mix of all-star artists backed by a killer house band for the evening. (The backing band alone would’ve been worth the cost of admission – but we’ll talk about them in a moment.)

The list of guests is a long one, ranging from furry folkie Iron & Wine wringing the pain out of “Long Black Veil” to little Brandi Carlile yeee-hawing and a’ yipping her way through “Folsom Prison Blues”. Old campaigners Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson are sounding good – damn good, in fact: KK leads the way through a driving “Big River”, shares vocal duties on his own “Help Me Make It Through The Night” with Jamey Johnson, and tells the tale of the “Highwayman” with Johnson, Shooter Jennings, and Nelson. Willie in the meantime (who will turn 80 next year) makes a good case for a daily regimen of weed, sounding strong vocally and doing some typical Willie-style picking in a rehearsal performance of “I Still Miss Someone” and a duet with Sheryl Crow on “If I Were A Carpenter”. The Carolina Chocolate Drops do their own foot-stomping, wide-open acoustic thing, of course – imagine The Ramones as an old-timey string band and you’d get a sense of what it sounds like when the CCDs powerhouse their way through “Jackson”.

The real stars of the night, however are the house band. Check this out: musical director for the night Don Was on bass, hammering it home with veteran beatmaster Kenny Aronoff on drums; Ian McLagan on keys; Greg Leisz on steel guitar and mando; and Buddy Miller on vocals and guitar.

The quintet makes it twang and chug behind Rhett Miller on “Wreck Of The Old 97” and Crow’s “Cry, Cry, Cry”; lets it romp on Shooter Jennings’ version of “Cocaine Blues” and Andy Grammer’s version of “Get Rhythm”; builds it up from quiet confession to roaring purge on “Hurt” (Cash made the Nine Inch Nails song his in 2002; here Lucinda Williams takes it on); plays it sweet for “Why Me Lord” (Shelby Lynne); and makes room for a couple of mariachi horns on Ronnie Dunn’s cover of “Ring Of Fire”.

The highlight of the set might just be when Miller, Leisz, McLagan, Aronoff, and Was are left to their own devices on “Hey Porter”, lovingly twisting Cash’s 1954 single into a nasty, greasy, butt-grinding Bo Diddley-flavored rhumba. Aronoff lays down a raunchy backbeat punctuated by Was’ thumping bass weavings; Miller spews out fistfuls of guitar crunch as he growls out the opening verses; McLagan and Leisz fill out the decadence with barroom piano and ripples of mando. When they tumble into the first break, everyone drops out, leaving Aronoff’s thumpa-thumpa-thumpa drums and the beautiful violence of Miller’s wild-ass guitar: all grisly double-stops and crazy bends. Another couple verses and McLagen jumps on a solo that’ll remind you of why the Faces were so damn good; he hands it off to Leisz and Miller who weave their respective six and eight strings in a blend of squeals, howls, churns, and blistering brilliance. One more verse and the song slams to a smoking halt.

This version of “Hey Porter” might be a long ways from what a young Johnny Cash laid down in Sun Records’ studio 58 years ago, but it’s brimming full of heart, soul, and rhythm. Ol’ John would’ve loved it.

A celebration, indeed.

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