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Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash

Oh sure, I hear you moan. And I'm the love child of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Actually, the Bastard Sons, who hail from San Diego, are more like the kissin' cousins of Dwight Yoakam; but as Minnie Pearl used to sing on Hee Haw, you'll never hear one of us quibbling semantics. Particularly when the music is this good.

The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash aren't really related to J.C. (duh); but the big man and his son John Carter are supporters, and on occasion have defended the band's moniker to those who get pruny around the mouth on account of it. John Carter was in attendance at a recent show in Nashville, in fact, where the band's name has more than occasionally been a source of tension. So why does he keep taking the heat for people he's not even kin to?

Well, for one thing, you'd expect a band with a name like this -- and a big whiskey bottle on its album cover to boot -- to be a lot more snot-nosed than the group sounds on Walk Alone. The Bastard Sons are so conventional, in terms of their idiom and their subject matter, that they're downright conservative; these are songs about truck stop coffee and interstates and trains and Memphis and Texas and how sometimes a man's just gotta cut out and go off on his own, honey, and there's nary a ringer in the bunch. Their covers of Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings" and Dale Watson's "Truckstop in La Grange" are reverent, if not precise reproductions; you can almost imagine them bowing their heads before the run-through. But my lord, what a performance.

Some of the power on Walk Alone comes from the staggering talents of guests and sidemen. Taras Prodaniuk (bass player for Yoakam), Brett Tuggle (keyboardist for Chris Isaak) and Steve Hunter (frequent guitarist for Bob Dylan) all contribute stellar performances. But they don't do much besides enhance the natural skills of the Bastard Sons themselves, who sound like they've been playing this kind of music all their young lives. Walk Alone is an album that arrives fully formed, beer-soaked and coffee-fueled. The Yoakam comparison bears repeating here; heavy on pedal steel and the pitcher-and-glass vocals of Mark Stuart (also the band's chief songwriter), any of the songs on Walk Alone could have fit comfortably on Yoakam's late-'80s/early-'90s releases.

That's not to say that the band is only going through the motions. Though the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash aren't breaking any new ground, there's nothing here to indicate that they want (or need) to; most of Stuart's titles, like "440 Horses" and "Interstate Cannonball," are pretty self-explanatory, but no less enjoyable for that. Strange how the recent spate of California nouveau-country acts (including Bastard Sons tourmates Red Meat) sounds more like Nashville used to than Nashville does today. Stranger still how Music Row keeps denying it. Give these guys a listen.