Half a century after the release of "Bitter Tears: Ballads Of The American Indian," a landmark protest album by the late Johnny Cash, a star-studded ensemble has revisited the record. And with various protests taking place across North America regarding territorial rights, fracking and oil exploration, it seems as relevant today as it did back in 1964.
Singer-songwriter Norman Blake's timbre strikes the right balance on the gentle, toe-tapper "Drums," which reflects back on different Native American moments in history and how, as a portion of the lyrics state, "broken treaties left us cursed." But the album, which follows the same sequence as the original, gets to the heart of the matter on the first song "As Long As The Grass Shall Grow." Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlins provide a haunting, gorgeous duet as the narrative of politicians grinning and broken treaties are revealed. The song is about 50 per cent longer than the original also, giving it time to wash over the listener quite nicely.
That's not to say everything here is memorable, as Emmylou Harris' rendition of "Apache Tears" is strong, but comes across as a simple rendition with her iconic voice leading the way. And the spoken-word run-through of "The Talking Leaves" sounds a bit forced much of the time. Making a great impression is how Steve Earle's ramble of "Custer" perks the record up. Earle makes the song his own, which brings to mind many of his Celtic-tinged nuggets like "Galway Girl" and "Billy And Bonnie."
Perhaps the highlight - as was the case with the original - is "The Ballad Of Ira Hayes," which is performed by Kris Kristofferson. While the arrangement is simple, Kristofferson's long-in-the-tooth timbre makes the listener take note far more than anything else on the record. And The Milk Carton Kids (who assist on a number of songs) also come off very strong on "White Girl," which brings to mind The Jayhawks' better moments.
Aside from two reprises not found on the original, but fleshed out here, the record's homestretch is noted for "The Vanishing Race" featuring Welch, Rawlings and Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops. Giddens' slightly blues-y delivery makes the Appalachian arrangement all the more crisp and polished.
ProducerJoe Henry should be given props for breathing new life into a collection of songs that have sadly brought little change to those Cash was speaking for 50 years ago.