Michael Bucher and Joanne Shenandoah, in conjunction with Hondo Mesa Records have recently released “Bitter Tears – Sacred Ground,” a tribute to the 1964 album “Bitter tears: Ballads of the American Indian” by legendary country artist Johnny Cash.
Cash’s album has long been a subject of controversy by mainstream media because of its graphic portrayals of the hardships faced by Indians. The album was removed from stores soon after its release, but has since remained popular in Indian country.
Cash, who believed he was of Cherokee descent, created the album in response to Native musician Peter Lafarge’s poem “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,” based on the forcible relocation of the Seneca Nation after the construction of the Kinzua Dam in the 60s.
The controversy surrounding the album, the attention paid to struggles of American Indians and an admiration for Cash is what prompted Shenandoah and Bucher to create “Bitter Tears – Sacred Ground.”
“I grew up listening to Johnny Cash,” Bucher said. “Joanne and her husband came up with the concept of the album. When they asked me to be a part of it, I was honored. The whole process was a blast. It was painless and a great time. We recorded 13 songs in five days. We had set aside seven days. We were not sure we were going to get it done in time. We worked a 14 hour day for five days, but we got it done.”
“As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,” the first track of the album, is performed by Shenandoah, a Grammy and Nammy winner. She approaches the song with respect and confidence and her ability is impressive, as always.
Nammy-winning artist Bucher then comes to bat with a fantastic rendition of “Apache Tears.” His voice is appealing and forthright, with tonal qualities that do not fade but stay in your mind well after the song is complete.
“The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” regarding the Pima Indian, a young marine who raised the flag at Iwo Jima yet died in poverty, is flawlessly performed by Bucher. The way Bucher sings it reminds us why the song originally rose to the number three spot on country music charts in the first place.
While the first half of the album is Bucher and Shenandoah’s take on Cash’s album, the second half is a mixture of songs written mostly by Shenandoah and Bucher. Though the artists step away from the original album, “Bitter Tears” stays on course with Cash’s original theme. They have created songs that continue to deliver a similar, coherent message.
“Riding Free,” a song written and performed by Shenandoah in honor of the Dann sisters, two Western Shoshone women who filed an urgent action request with the United Nations against racial discrimination, is beautifully performed and heartfelt.
On the ninth track, Bucher introduces his first original song of the album, “Sacred Ground.” Bucher discussed the meaning behind the song.
“Sacred Ground goes back to my family history and fighting for sacred sites. It does not matter what part of the country you are from, or what your heritage is, everyone has sacred ground.”
The track, “Don’t Forget About Me,” is off Bucher’s “Seven” album.
Shenandoah sings words written by Floyd Red Crow Westerman on “They Didn’t Listen.” She ends the album with “America,” which embraces a concept of unity and people coming together regardless of ethnic background.
For Shenandoah, the album illustrates an artist that continues to deliver beautiful music. For Bucher, a new artist to the music world, the listener is left eager to see what is coming next.