The late Johnny Cash embodied the spirit of American music. Cash’s rebellious attitude and individual style challenged the limits applied to country music and helped define a new generation of artists.
The clearest example of this was his style of dress. While everyone else at the Grand Ole Opry was decked out in gaudy, bright, rhinestone suits, Cash wore all black, earning him the nickname “The Man in Black.” His most successful album was “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison,” but he may be better known to our generation for songs like “A Boy Named Sue” and “Ring of Fire.”
Cash’s most recent album, “American IV: The Man Comes Around” garnered critical and commercial success for its blend of original material and unconventional covers such as Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” for which Cash received a nomination for Video of the Year at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards.
Cash’s influence appears in almost all genres of music today from punk’s Social Distortion to rap’s Jay-Z. His strongest followers, of course, come from those who walk the thin line between rock and country, a border that Cash may not have founded, but certainly explored. This tradition is reflected today in the recent works of country rockers like Steve Earle, M. Ward and Emmylou Harris.
Earle has always been a rabble-rouser musically and personally, much like Cash. They both challenged the labels placed on them as artists and fought personal battles with drugs and alcohol. With his latest album, Earle also assumed Cash’s mantel as an interpreter of the American psyche. “Jerusalem” examines life in post-Sept. 11 America, what it means to be a patriot and the differences between the ideals of the founding fathers and those of contemporary American society. Earle’s songwriting is as poetic and honest as ever on songs like “America v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)” and “John Walker’s Blues.” But, not all of the songs are political. “Go Amanda,” “Ashes to Ashes,” and “What’s a Simple Man to Do?” portray some of the hallmarks of country/blues/rock writing – “Love, God, and Murder,” as Cash titled one of his albums.
“The Transfiguration of Vincent”
M. Ward’s music is based in the same tradition of Americana as Cash’s, but Ward subtly incorporates a more modern sensibility into his work. His guitar work seems like something you’d hear in the backwoods of Tennessee, but his studio production brings to mind elements of Ed Harcourt and Crooked Fingers. This album is stunning original material except for an amazing folky reworking of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” in which Ward’s hands lose their energetic, dance feel and assume a tone of honest, love-wrenched yearning. Ward’s voice is his own. While the influence of musical forefathers like Cash can be seen in Ward’s work, ultimately it is Ward’s particular take on country-folk that makes the album so interesting.
“Stumble into Grace”
If there’s one part of Johnny Cash’s work that should live on for all eternity, it is the honesty of his voice. Emmylou Harris, a contemporary of Cash’s, also possesses that same purity of voice that is so hard to find these days. Harris’ latest album, due out Sept. 23, is another example of her elegance. While Cash’s truths were hard-hitting and powerful, Harris takes a tender route to the heart, playing with ethereal, often ambient sounds intricately layered through her folk-country sound. Beth Orton’s “Daybreaker” owes much to the airy country first developed by Harris. With “Stumble into Grace,” Harris – of country’s leading ladies – proves why she’s still on top of the heap.
“De-Loused in the Comatorium”
Former members of At The Drive-In, best known for their hit “One Armed Scissor,” Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez have come together as Mars Volta and juiced up the college alternative world with their progressive and psychedelic blend of emo and hardcore. More symphonic and sprawling than their past work, the duo have created an album of so many layers and mixing styles it’s hard not to find something that you’ll like. Fans from such various backgrounds as Radiohead, Ill Nino, John Lennon and Sigur Ros will all see elements of their favorites in De-Loused’s melting pot of modern music.
“Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note”
West Coast Underground Hip-Hop genius Madlib has raided the archives of the legendary Blue Note jazz label and remixed jazz classics like “Stepping into Tomorrow” and “Dolphin Dance” with his own distinct brand of beat. Madlib has been known as a producer since the early 90’s and produced an LP of jazz with his group Yesterday’s New Quintet, but this is his first major label solo release. If you like other jazz influenced rap like Jurassic 5 and Tribe Called Quest, other West Coast rappers like Aceyalone and Del The Funky Homosapian, or even progressive jazz. Madlib just provides the beat – don’t expect any rapping. The album makes for great party music, driving music, relaxing music or just for your listening pleasure.
Alternative singer-songwriter Mark Oliver Everett has taken all the directionless potential of Pete Yorn, and the whole adult-alternative sound, and coupled it with the weirdness and striking humanity of Beck’s “Sea Change” to make “Shootenanny!” Eels also incorporates aspects of blues and bluegrass along the lines of Crooked Fingers to mix into his pop-sensitive, but smart, new album. This is Eels’ fifth album, and while he’s received critical success, the general public hasn’t been paying much attention.