Johnny Cash|Various Artists

At Madison Square Garden|American IV: The Man Comes Around|Dressed in Black|Kindred Spirits

Perhaps more than any other living country singer, Johnny Cash is a veritable American icon. Like Willie Nelson, Cash bridged the hippie-era generation gap by admitting he was a druggie (in his case, a pill popper) even as he clung to his rural roots. Cash sang gospel songs and redneck ballads while embracing such liberal causes as Native American rights and environmentalism. At the same time, he was mindful not to alienate potential fans, carefully playing it both ways when taking up social issues. On At Madison Square Garden, his stunning, recently uncovered 1969 concert from the height of the Vietnam War, Cash introduces a pacifist folk tune with a reminder that he has just returned from a USO tour, praising the boys in uniform even as he questions the government that sent them abroad.

In the 1990s, Cash expanded his transgenerational appeal, winning over Gen-Xers with a series of albums that paired irony-laden covers of Tom Waits, Tom Petty, and Glenn Danzig with more traditional material. American IV: The Man Comes Around, again recorded with producer Rick Rubin, continues this pattern, placing Trent Reznor's "Hurt" and Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" alongside "Danny Boy" and "Desperado." The album's melancholy, hagiographic aura accentuates the overobviousness of the formula, as everyone concerned seems all too aware of the 70-year-old's recent contraction of the debilitating Shy-Drager syndrome.

The strangest thing about the Man in Black cult, though, is that while Cash himself has always been a far-reaching artist -- being both an early champion of Bob Dylan and a later interpreter of grunge and punk -- his devotees tend to be rather unadventuresome. For many, Cash's canon seems to be something you just don't mess with, his old proto-rockabilly slap-bass sound suitable only for reverential re-creation. The alt-hick tribute collection Dressed in Black is a good example: Although it's a solid album packed with top talent like Cash's former son-in-law Rodney Crowell and hillbilly filly Rosie Flores, few of the musicians take chances with the material. (Merle Haggard's old guitar player, Redd Volkaert, is a welcome exception, cutting loose on a funky version of "Luther.")

The big shock in this year's flood of tributes is the strength of the major-label option: Sony's Kindred Spirits compilation creates radically original covers by relying on languid, drifting rhythms and instruments like keyboard and slide guitar, which Cash himself would rarely use. Dwight Yoakam opens the album with an expansive reinterpretation of "Understand Your Man," followed by Johnny's daughter Rosanne offering a mournful rendition of "I Still Miss Someone." Other surprises include Southern rocker Travis Tritt's mellowed-out reading of "I Walk the Line" and blues picker Keb' Mo's haunting version of "Folsom Prison Blues." Kindred Spiritsis the Cash tribute we've been waiting decades for -- respectful but imaginative, teasing rich nuances out of familiar old songs while reaffirming the resonance, vigor, and depth of Cash's remarkable legacy.

 
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