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The heart of country

December 17, 2006|RANDY LEWIS

Johnny Cash, "American V: A Hundred Highways" (American Recordings). The utterly unguarded honesty and fearlessness with which Cash faced his impending death in these final recordings make them as monumentally moving as they are truly humbling.

*

Mindy Smith, "Long Island Shores" (Vanguard). The vulnerability in her songs is equaled only by an unyielding faith that holding onto such open-heartedness is worth whatever pain it may cause in the short run.

*

Vince Gill, "The Reason Why" (MCA Nashville). The four separately themed CDs in this ambitiously voluminous set each represent a different aspect of the esteemed singer, songwriter and guitarist's long career; together, they make a powerful statement about the joys of label-free music making.

*

Eric Church, "Sinners Like Me" (Capitol Nashville). This North Carolina rookie brings an authentic voice to his songwriting, turning many country music cliches inside out on this accomplished debut.

*

Alan Jackson, "Like Red on a Rose" (Arista Nashville). At times during his career, the lanky Georgian has been too laid back for his own good, but that tendency works beautifully with these songs, chosen for him by producer Alison Krauss, many of them about growing old happily, and gracefully.

*

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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