John Cowan’s Return Leads New Releases

An album of new work from Nashville singer-songwriter John Cowan, a retrospective collection of Johnny Cash ’s singles on Sun Records and a live album from guitar master Doc Watson lead this week’s crop of new CD releases. Another Sun Records legend of sorts is also remembered in a new release, and a retrospective looks at the work of the late Tennessee Ernie Ford .

Cowan created a large following as lead singer of the New Grass Revival for 15 years, and his outings in folk, gospel, bluegrass and rock continue to draw new Cowan fans. He and Rusty Young and Bill Lloyd performed together as the Sky Kings until 1997. Now, with Wendy Waldman producing (who also produced the New Grass Revival’s last album), he releases Always Take Me Back (Sugar Hill). It combines his many musical elements in songs such as “Monroe’s Mule,” “In My Father’s Field,” “Two Quarts Low” and “Sittin’ on Top of the World.”

The Essential Sun Singles: Johnny Cash (Varese Vintage) packs 25 vintage Cash Sun singles on one CD. Cash recorded for Sam Phillips’ Sun records in Memphis from 1955 to 1958 when he left for Columbia Records in Nashville. He recorded for Sun backed by the Tennessee Two –- guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. Songs here include “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Get Rhythm,” Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” “You’re the Nearest Thing to Heaven” and “Come in Stranger.”

Guitar legend Watson recorded his performance at the 2001 MerleFest, the annual roots music/bluegrass festival named after his late son, for his new album, ’Round the Table Again (Sugar Hill). He recorded with the group Frosty Morn, which his son Merle had formed to pursue different avenues of music. The group includes Bob Lamar Hill on guitars, piano and vocals; Joe Smothers on guitars and vocals; T. Michael Coleman on vocals and electric bass; and Richard Watson -– Merle’s son –- on guitar. The album includes such songs as “Coo Coo Bird,” “Nights in White Satin,” “Working Man Blues” and “Walking in Jerusalem.”

Another Sun Records legend of sorts -– this one from Sun’s second era, when the label had moved to Nashville -– resurfaces this week. The late artist named Orion caused a flurry of news in the late 1970s and early 1980s when rumors abounded that the singer might actually be the late Elvis Presley –- who had supposedly faked his own death. Orion appeared onstage wearing a Lone Ranger mask and his voice now and then eerily resembled Elvis’, but he was mainly a product of second Sun owner Shelby Singleton’s feverish marketing imagination. Orion — real name Jimmy Ellis — retired from music and later was killed with his wife in 1998 in a robbery at his pawn shop in Orrville, Ala. The Man Who Would Be King: The Best of Orion (Fuel 2000) includes 20 songs, ranging from “Peace in the Valley” to “Be Bop a Lula.”

The late Tennessee Ernie Ford – who actually was born in Tennessee, in Bristol — had a huge hit in 1955 with the Merle Travis song “Sixteen Tons.” Tennessee Ernie Ford: Absolutely the Best (Fuel 2000) includes that song as well as his other 1955 hit, “Ballad of Davy Crockett,” and such songs as “Mule Train” and “Hey Good Looking.”