Johnny Cash’s 1964 album Bitter Tears has been unjustly overlooked for far too long. While it was not Cash’s first “concept” album, it is likely the very first country protest album. All of the songs on Bitter Tears dealt with the plight of Native Americans, which was a far cry from what was going on in mainstream country and western media at the time. In 1962 Western films were still making big money, and just about every one of them depicted crazed Indians attacking innocent, God-fearing settlers. Cash had not yet placed his infamous ad in which he flips off his bosses, but the effect of a country album sympathizing with Indians in 1964 was pretty close.
Bitter Tears was certainly ahead of its time, but even as society caught up to what Cash was saying, he was moving on. The achievements of the record were overshadowed as Cash continued to astonish his audience as time rolled on. His appearances at Folsom and San Quentin prisons were legendary, and he again broke down barriers by inviting artists such as Bob Dylan to appear on his television show. If all that were not enough, he recorded some of the best work of his career in his autumn years with producer Rick Rubin at the helm.
It has taken the efforts of fans/fellow musicians to remind the world of Bitter Tears, some 10 years after he joined wife June Carter Cash in the great beyond. Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited is a tribute to the album, and features a very impressive cast of musicians. A few of these include Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle and Kris Kristofferson, among others.
In some respects, Bitter Tears could almost be considered a Peter LaFarge album, as he wrote five of the eight songs on it. Cash wrote the remaining thee, one in collaboration with Johnny “North to Alaska” Horton. It is the opener that is the most memorable, “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow.” Cash’s 1964 version is a whopping 6:10, which was an incredible length for a song 50 years ago. The updated “Grass Shall Grow” by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings is 9:11, and just as powerful.
Look Again to the Wind adds three songs to the original, two being reprises, and the third being “Look Again to the Wind” written by Bill Miller. “Apache Tears” and “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” are reprised late in the set as sort of reminders as to what the record is all about. I have never had much luck with so-called “tribute” albums because all they make me want to do is to go back and listen to the original again. In this case, I was not previously familiar with Bitter Tears, so I think Look Again did the job it was intended to do – introduce Cash fans to a classic of his that may have been overlooked for one reason or another.
Look Again to the Wind came out a couple of months ago and I almost overlooked it. I am glad I caught it, for this is one of the finest true country albums of 2014. Plus, it shines the light on an excellent early Sixties recording from The Man in Black. A sleeper, and a damn fine one at that.
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