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The legend of country singer Johnny Cash continues to expand into the 21st century, fueled in part by the success of the recent biopic Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. In an era when the movie and music industries churn out nothing but fakery (for example, a third version of King Kong), it's comforting to know people sometimes long for a real presence like Cash. More than any other recording artist, he probed the dark side of the American consciousness with utter fearlessness. Fiddy may want to get rich or die trying, but it was Cash who shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

The soundtrack to Walk the Line is a stirring recreation of Cash's music courtesy of producer T-Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and actor Joaquin Phoenix, who nails every note with conviction. It's a surprising act of mimicry on one level; on another, it serves as a study in the kind of uncompromising masculinity and heroic existentialism that used to appear in our country's pop culture prior to Vietnam. Hearing Phoenix channel Cash is to recall what was lost when The A-Team supplanted Have Gun Will Travel: the mark of the soul. And when Phoenix and Witherspoon combine Southern drawls in "Jackson," it's almost as if real country music--not the plastic stuff manufactured by McGraw et al.--never died. You're also going to want to hear Waylon's son Shooter sing his daddy's anthem "I'm a Long Way From Home." It's another instance of how an artist successfully walks the line between pop and art and comes up with something indispensable.

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