It doesn't matter how many country bros dip into the hip-hop well and rap about dirt-road memories or honky-tonk badonkadonks: In the popular imagination, country music scans as white music. So if I tell you a soul singer has just put out a collection of Johnny Cash songs, a lot of you will imagine a novelty record—something along the lines of a polka-disco album or a Cajun rap.
Resist the thought. Even in the age of Jim Crow, America's ears found ways to evade segregation: Behind those allegedly rigid color lines, generations of black and white musicians have been listening to each other and absorbing the sounds they hear. Brian Owens' fine new album Soul of Cash belongs to a long tradition of country-soul crossovers—a tradition so long, in fact, that more than one of these songs have been covered by other R&B acts in the past.
That's not to say that the new tracks are retreads. Owens' arrangement of "Ring of Fire," with an easygoing guitar playing the notes that Cash assigned to some Mariachi horns, is worlds removed from Ray Charles' explosive take on the tune. And where Slim Harpo turned "Folsom Prison Blues" into something as slow and heavy as the train in the lyrics, Owens speeds the song up; if you don't listen to the words, it sounds almost joyful. The borderland between country and R&B is large, offering plenty of space to explore.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Soul of Cash".