Return of the Prodigal

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Judging strictly from the numbers, the music on Walk Alone struck a deep enough chord to suggest that contemporary audiences found their mainstream country options a bit lacking. Walk Alone sold several thousand copies, enough that R.E.D. Distribution picked up the album with an eye to re-releasing it in 2001; Ultimatum took the opportunity to repackage it.

While on their first supporting tour, the Sons had been invited to Johnny Cash's home--the Man in Black had been a supporter from the beginning--where they spent a few days bass fishing and recording two songs, "Nowhere Town" and "Spanish Eyes," under the production of Cash's son John Carter. Those new tracks got tagged onto Walk Alone's original 12-song playlist for the re-release. So, by a series of bizarre turns, the Bastard Sons have come back to the fold in a very literal sense.

"The [Cash] family's been really good to us," Stuart says. "They've come to our defense several times. When I first thought up the band name and approached his organization about using it, I hoped that Johnny Cash would be the type of man that I thought he was. I hoped he'd be the kind who'd have a sense of humor and receive it as a tip of the hat, kind of an homage to him.

"But also," he continues, "as a thumb in the eye of Nashville country. And, of course, he got it immediately. He's not about stepping on the little guy. He told me, 'Look, I didn't have a record deal for 20 years, and they still don't play my stuff on country radio.'"

In that interpretation, Stuart and fellow Sons Dean Coates, Jeff Roberts and Joey Galvan are as much the bastard offspring of all outlaw country singers, a group of singer-songwriters who never got the support they deserved from the Nashville system. Accusing the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash of merely aping an established formula obscures the fact that the formula was, in fact, never fully entrenched.

To take another example, know that Cash went entirely against the advice of his management in allowing the Sons to use the family name, a touch of support that the band appreciates.

"For any artist to go up against his own people like that really says he does care about the next generation. I think [Cash] has more empathy with us than maybe we even realize. Johnny got us our first House of Blues gig. All those guys, Johnny and Willie and Merle, have been really decent about the whole thing, helping this band when we needed a break, giving us a chance."

Talk of Cash's anti-establishmentarianism invariably leads us to a discussion of the infamous Billboard ad in which a young J.C. flipped the bird to the entire music industry. "That Billboard ad was so overdue," Stuart says, laughing. "It's overdue today as well, and it just proves to me again that we picked the right guy to follow. What if I'd picked George Jones? I might get associated with hair products. Or reinforcements for bridges. [Cash] was exactly the man I wanted him to be, and hopefully we can honor him by making great records."

The crowds seem to think so, and here's another aspect of the Sons' charm--their appeal to an audience that spans generations and musical tastes.

"Our reception on the road has been fantastic. We've had a lot of sellouts, even in towns where we'd never played before. Somehow people are finding out about the record. Some of it is the Internet, and some is the press, of course, but I think most of it is probably word of mouth. That's the way I get most of my records.

"I've seen people at our shows who are obviously up in years, being helped into the venue, and they'll end up sitting across from somebody who's 20 years old, covered in tattoos with a foot of spiky hair. Our audience is like the Land of Misfit Toys; they're bastard people. But they're all aficionados of barroom country, the music that came out of the bars, instead of the studio with million-dollar production values."

Asked why that kind of music's endured for so long, Stuart is more hesitant to judge.

"It probably touches something even more emotional in a lot of people," he says slowly, "considering the mess the country's in now... maybe it hearkens back to a time when the singer still wrote the song, and it wasn't manufactured in a little cubicle upstairs somewhere in a publishing house. Those were just guys living and dying and telling their own stories; when you see people like that up on stage, even now, when they're old, it's a real powerful thing.

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Eric Waggoner