More often than not, tribute albums are irredeemable junk. Need convincing? Available for purchase in this great nation are records commemorating the slushy ballads of John Mayer, the plodding, overwrought rock of Evanescence and the Motown-lite crooning of Ruben Studdard (the American Idol guy).
And ponder this: No fewer than three tribute albums honor the work of Linkin Park, an annoying rap-rock amalgam. (Is there a more perfectly incongruous phrase in the language than “A Gothic Acoustic Tribute to Linkin Park”?)
An exception is Dualtone Record’s recently released “The Unbroken Circle: The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family.” Unlike so many other tributes, the Carters actually deserve the accolade. Recognizing this, producer John Carter Cash set about finding artists to perform- the songs made famous by his forebears in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Carter Cash didn’t have to look far — his parents were country music legends Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, both of whom recorded songs for this album before their deaths last year.
The Carters — A.P., his wife Sara and Sara’s cousin Mother Maybelle — came out of Virginia in 1927. Over the next decade-and-a-half they did scores of radio shows and recorded 300 songs, the most famous of which might have been “No Depression in Heaven,” an improbably uplifting tale about the economic hard times of the ’30s — Sheryl Crow performs it on this record. The trio stopped playing together in 1943, but Maybelle, by then the “Queen of Country Music,” kept touring with her daughters. One of them, June, would marry Johnny Cash, forming another country music royal family.
Contemporary country has a pretty bad reputation, one it has earned by elevating to superstardom the likes of, say, Brooks & Dunn. But some of the genre’s best contemporary performers — like Loretta Lynn, Mark Erelli and the unsurpassed Norman and Nancy Blake — are the artistic descendants of the Carters. The family’s songs of heartbreak and hope — ballads and old-time spirituals, social commentaries and tragic laments, picaresques and morality tales — are the foundation of modern country and, to an extent, rock and pop music. Theirs is a vast legacy.
At times “The Unbroken Circle” feels like an elegy, a late-in-life gathering of voices that have helped define country music for two generations. A weary Johnny Cash turns in a wonderful performance of the Carter classic “Engine One-Forty-Three,” a brisk ballad about an overzealous train conductor (“I want to die so free, I want to die for the engine I love”). June Carter Cash, who passed in May 2003 — four months before her husband’s death — sounds wonderful on “Hold Fast to the Right.” (Happily, the song has nothing to do with the political spectrum; it’s about living a decent life, a life that is “right” with God and the universe.) Willie Nelson, now 71, gives what may be the best and most guileless performance on the album, turning the simple lyrics of the Carters’ “You Are My Flower” into the most superb of love songs. And George Jones, born two years before Nelson, does a great “Worried Man Blues.”
John Carter Cash writes in the album’s liner notes, “The songs of the Carter Family are as relevant and as close to our lives today as they were when first recorded.” He’s right. Emmylou Harris sings “On the Sea of Galilee,” a song that sounds at once a century old and brand new. The Blakes tell the story of how feral “Black Jack David” charms a girl out of “her high-heeled shoes, made of Spanish leather.” To listen to “The Unbroken Circle” is to understand where it all came from, and why it still matters. And that kind of record is surely worthy of tribute.