Cash Tribute From Country Renegades Lead New Releases

A Johnny Cash tribute album assembled by country’s current crop of renegade artists arrives in stores Tuesday (Sept. 17), while a host of Nashville’s most acclaimed musicians — including Martina McBride and Alison Krauss — contribute to the Chieftains’ new project. Meanwhile, bluegrass band Mountain Heart debuts on Ricky Skaggs ’ label and clear-voiced country star Suzy Bogguss offers a 20-song retrospective.

Dressed in Black: A Tribute to Johnny Cash (Dualtone) assembles a group of talented Americana artists to salute the country music legend. Highlights include Rodney Crowell ’s “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and Raul Malo’s “I Guess Things Happen That Way.” Earl Poole Ball, a former touring pianist with Cash, also turns in a fine, barroom version of “I Still Miss Someone.” Cash accepted the Americana Music Association’s first Spirit of Americana Free Speech award on Friday (Sept. 13).

For their 40th anniversary, Ireland’s best-known traditional band The Chieftains returned to Nashville to record Down the Old Plank Road (RCA Victor). The album connects traditional Irish music and American roots music, with a boost from the finest names in bluegrass and country, such as Vince Gill , Martina McBride, Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, Earl Scruggs and the Del McCoury Band , among others. The Chieftains will film a concert with many of these artists at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Sept. 30. A second volume of Down the Old Plank Road, with additional luminaries, is due early next year.

Nominated for six International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards this year, Mountain Heart emerges with an energetic bluegrass album, No Other Way (Skaggs Family). As one of the newest bands in bluegrass, Mountain Heart unites a high caliber of talent — Steve Gulley, Barry Abernathy, Jim Van Cleve (all formerly of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver), Adam Steffey (formerly of Alison Krauss & Union Station) and Jason Moore. Vince Gill and Dobro player Rob Ickes contribute to Carl Jackson’s cheating song “Faithless Heart.” Ricky Skaggs produced.

Suzy Bogguss’ 20 Greatest Hits (Liberty) will remind country fans why she won the CMA horizon award in 1992. Familiar titles from the pure-voiced singer include “Drive South,” “Aces,” “Letting Go,” “Outbound Plane” and “Hey Cinderella.” Bogguss also recorded “Cold Day in July” and “Forget About It” — both featured here — before they became identified with the Dixie Chicks and Alison Krauss, respectively.

If Bogguss’ name rings a bell, so will Clay Walker ’s. A constant presence on the country charts throughout the 1990s, Walker returns with Christmas (Warner Bros.), a warm, understated affair with chestnuts like “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Winter Wonderland.” Only 98 shopping days left! Walker is expected to release a new studio album on RCA in spring 2003.

Sugar Hill releases three albums for fans of Texas-flavored music. Guy Clark co-wrote 11 tracks on The Dark and, as always, included one Townes Van Zandt tune (“Rex’s Blues”). James McMurtry found inspiration on the backroads of America to record and produce Saint Mary of the Woods. The Gourds’ Cow Fish Fowl or Pig keeps their cheeky attitude intact.

Before finding solo stardom, Keith Whitley joined J.D. Crowe & the New South, a forward-thinking bluegrass band popular in the 1970s. Rounder Records reissues 1978’s Home Ain’t in the Hall of Fame, with Whitley on vocals. Other tracks include “Sin City” and “My Window Faces the South.”

Those interested in the history of Hollywood’s singing cowboys may consider new collections from the Varese Sarabande label. Rusty Richards’ Country Pioneer includes recordings before he joined the Sons of the Pioneers in 1965. Johnny Bond ’s The Home Recordings features mostly acoustic, previously unreleased music. Culled from radio programs in the 1950s, The Very Best of Merle Travis wouldn’t earn its title without “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” and “Sixteen Tons,” both written by Travis. Jimmy Wakely ’s Singing Cowboy recalls the films, radio shows and songs that made him a star in the 1940s. Bond and Travis are members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.