“The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin” – Dean Owens

5 stars (out of 5)

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Last year I reviewed an album by Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter Dean Owens called “Cash Back” which was a tribute to the late Johnny Cash.  The album was a set of covers of songs made famous by Johnny Cash apart from one, “The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin”, which is a Dean Owens original and was recently released as a single on Drumfire Records.

Although the song’s part of a great set of songs written by Johnny Cash and other songwriters, it doesn’t sound out of place at all.  It’s based around one of the classic country themes of the prisoner serving his sentence (on death row this time) but with the added twist that he’s in San Quentin at the time of the legendary Johnny Cash performance.  The song moves between verses telling the prisoner’s story and a chorus using details from the actual San Quentin performance, which adds historical authenticity to the story.  The instrumentation and production give the song an authentic early-period Johnny Cash feel with Dean’s acoustic rhythm guitar and Will Kimbrough’s electric guitar and slightly distorted slide guitar; it could have been made at Sun Studios in the ‘50s.

This is a beautifully constructed song with a sparse but effective arrangement which highlights the quality of the song and the powerful, emotive vocal performance.  It’s as good as any of the classic songs on the album and it’s the best single I’ve heard so far this year.  Even if you’re not a fan of country, you really should give this a listen; you could even buy it.

Out now.