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Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson
VH1 Storytellers,  American/Sony CD 69416, 1998


Ragged but right, country’s living monuments Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson appeared on VH1’s winning series,  Storytellers, last summer. Now comes a recording of the event, including several tunes not aired on the show. Hard to believe, but other than their 1985 participation in the Highwaymen, Cash and Nelson have never recorded together. Alas, in light of Cash’s recent affliction with Shy-Drager Syndrome, this may be as close as we come to hearing the two legends grouped exclusively on record again. Savor the experience.

In tune with the series’ format, most of the album’s fifteen songs are preceded by neat anecdotes or short interesting tales of the songs’ origins. The banter is light and loose. The songs were determined from the hip as the singers went along, lending a sense of immediacy to the intended intimacy of the setting. Armed with only their acoustic guitars and million-dollar voices, Cash and Nelson roll out songs of various vintage, most of them unarguable classics, several performed as duets. "(Ghost) Riders In The Sky," which begins the disc elegantly in a rough sort of way, highlights each singer’s strengths. Willie begins the tune, ad-libbing the opening, speaking volumes of the sage confidence that marks his better songs. Cash’s voice, reaching a bit high in places, descends into familiar lows with more than a touch of superbly worn experience.

And so it goes with the remainder of the album. A light Reggae touch is given to Cash’s "Worried Man," a faultless duet that recounts the tale of an out-of-luck, out-of-work Jamaican man Cash met a few years back. Nelson’s famed trilogy of ordinarily idiosyncratic tunes, all written, he says, "in one week"–"Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy" and "Night Life"–have been more skillfully played, yet rarely have they sounded better. On these, and indeed on all appropriate songs, Nelson, the better guitarist, handles the solos, leaving Cash to strum a steady rhythm. The jazzy, improvisational lead on Cash’s "Folsom Prison Blues"–more Django Rhinehardt than Luther Perkins–provides more than ample evidence to the fact that Nelson is one of country music’s greatest guitarists. At one point Willie notices that they have "water, coffee, and hot chocolate...what’s gonna happen to our image?" To which Cash responds, "As long as we keep wearing black I think we might be alright." To paraphrase The Who, the legends are alright.– Tom Netherland

Copyright © 1999 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.