Of all the dozens of albums released by Johnny Cash during his nearly half-century career, 1964’s Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian was among the closest to the artist’s heart. A concept album focusing on the mistreatment and marginalization of the Native American people throughout the history of the United States, its eight songs-among them “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” a #3 hit single for Cash on the Billboard country chart-spoke in frank and poetic language of the hardships and intolerance they endured. Now, 50 years after it was recorded, a collective of top Americana artists has come together to reimagine and update these songs that meant so much to Cash, who died in 2003. Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, produced by Joe Henry, features American music giants Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Bill Miller, Gillian Welch, and Norman and Nancy Blake, as well as up-and-comers the Milk Carton Kids and Rhiannon Giddens, interpreting the music of Bitter Tears for a new generation. As his project was for Cash, the new collection is a labor of love with a strong sense of purpose fueling its creation.
“Prior to Bitter Tears, the conversation about Native American rights had not really been had,” says Henry, “and at a very significant moment in his trajectory, Johnny Cash was willing to draw a line and insist that this be considered a human rights issue, alongside the civil rights issue that was coming to fruition in 1964. But he also felt that the record had never been heard, so there’s a real sense that we’re being asked to carry it forward.”
Bitter Tears, widely acknowledged for decades as one of Cash’s greatest artistic achievements, did not realize its stature as a landmark recording easily and quickly. At the time that Cash proposed the album, he was met with a great deal of resistance from his record label. They felt that a song cycle revolving around the Native American struggle as perpetrated by the white man took him too far afield of the country mainstream and Cash’s core audience. Cash still released the album and although it did not perform as well as he had hoped, he remained extremely proud of the album throughout his life.
Bitter Tears Revisited was recorded in three sessions: the first two in Los Angeles and Nashville and, lastly, one at the Cash Cabin, in Cash’s hometown of Hendersonville, Tennessee, where Bill Miller cut his contribution. Providing the instrumental backing for most of the album are Greg Leisz (steel guitar, guitars), Keefus Ciancia (keyboards), Patrick Warren (keyboards for the L.A. sessions), Jay Bellerose (drums) and Dave Piltch (bass). The album is available now here.