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When It Comes to the Man in Black, Accept No Substitutes

September 22, 2002|Robert Hilburn

Johnny Cash turned 70 on Feb. 26 and it's nice that a lot of artists, from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen, are saluting this giant of American pop culture in tribute albums. But I can't imagine putting money in a jukebox to hear almost any of them. The Cash originals, however? Anyone got change for a five?

** 1/2 Various artists, "Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash," Sony Nashville. This 14-track package, which arrives in stores Tuesday, illustrates the extremes of tribute albums. Some artists--Dylan, Springsteen, Keb Mo--rework the original songs so aggressively that they sound like, well, Dylan, Springsteen and Keb Mo tracks. Others--Hank Williams Jr. and Marty Stuart--try to duplicate the spirit of Cash's versions. Both are interesting, but only fleetingly.

** Various artists, "Dressed in Black: A Tribute to Johnny Cash," Dualtone. Most of the participants in this alt-artist package (including Hank Williams III, Rosie Flores and Dale Watson Knight) lean toward chasing the Cash spirit--and they do a reasonable job. The highlight: Earl Poole Ball's version of "I Still Miss Someone," boldly substituting piano for Cash's classic guitar-driven sound.

**** Johnny Cash, "The Essential Johnny Cash," Columbia/Legacy. From the rockabilly of "Big River" to the protest sounds of "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" to the introspection of "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," Cash's voice carries the character and command of an artist whose ambition, dedication and integrity have set a standard of excellence for almost a half century. There is no real substitute.

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