ACCLAIMED as a songwriter and performer though he is, Scotland’s Dean Owens might still be seen as making a bold move by stepping into the shoes of one of American music’s greatest icons — the late Johnny Cash.
For his latest solo album Owens, former frontman of leading Americana band The Felsons, is sidestepping his own compositions to delve into the back catalogue of country’s Man in Black with Cash Back — Songs I Learned From Johnny.
Not only is the album Owens’ tribute to Cash, who died nine years ago in September 2003, it also marks a belated tribute to an old friend in California who first suggested to Owens that he should turn his attention to the songs written or covered by Cash.
"Sadly he passed away a few years back and I always had this thing hanging over me that I should have made this record for my friend Bob," Owens said.
"Then I got offered some studio time from a friend in Glasgow. I’d just released a new album, so I thought I’d go in and do these songs of Johnny Cash."
Perhaps surprisingly, however, Owens does not consider himself a lifelong fan of Cash.
"Johnny Cash has always been there in the background, but it wasn’t until I was established as a writer that I really started listening to him," Owens explained.
Like many others, it was Cash’s later work with producer Rick Rubin, best known for his work with rap and rock acts, which really made Owens pay attention to the country legend. Rubin’s spare production on Cash’s American Recordings also provided an inspiration for Owens’ first solo album.
It was meeting Deacon Blue singer turned Radio Scotland presenter Ricky Ross to discuss Owens’ previous solo album, New York Hummingbird, that persuaded him he should release Cash Back as an album.
"I’ve always admired Johnny Cash’s ability to take a song and make it song like it was his own, whether it was written by Nick Lowe or Tom Waits or Bob Dylan," Owens explained.
"That’s kind of where the subtitle comes from: Songs I Learned From Johnny. It’s a mix of songs written by Johnny himself and songs that other people wrote and he recorded."
Several of the songs were showcased at a Cash tribute concert at the Southern Fried Festival of Americana in Perth, but though the songs were recorded in Glasgow, the album has a Nashville connection of its own, thanks to Will Kimbrough.
The songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist has recently toured with Emmylou Harris and has also worked with many other big names in the country world, including Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle and Johnny’s daughter Roseanne Cash.
The Americana Musician Of The Year award winner contributed guitar, banjo, mandolin and slide guitar to the album, which also features Kevin McGuire on double bass, occasional Felsons guitarist Stuart Nisbet on guitar and Marianne Campbell on fiddle.
"This year would have been Johnny’s 80th birthday. It just felt a good time to do it," Owens said.
"This will be the first time I’ve released two albums in one year, this and New York Hummingbird, but they are both quite different," he said.
"Cash Back has elements of the early Sun Records feel, but it does have a Celtic stamp."
Some of the dozen Cash songs on the album are songs Owens has known and played for years — Bob Dylan’s Girl From The North Country was one covered by The Felsons, for example — while others were relatively new to him.
He also took a decision to try and avoid some of the best known Cash hits, like Ring of Fire and A Boy Named Sue, in favour of less obvious samples from the Cash songbook.
However, he could not entirely avoid another Cash staple, I Walk The Line, which also lent its title to the Oscar-winning 2005 film of Cash’s life. That appears as one of the bonus tracks on the album.
"Though I suppose in spirit it’s a Cash tribute, it’s not a Johnny Cash tribute album," Owens said.
"I’m not trying to be Johnny Cash. It’s not a Stars In Your Eyes impression. It’s just my interpretation of songs that I like."
And though his more recent albums have moved away from country, Owens could not resist adding a song of his own, The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin, based on the famous prison concert filmed by ITV.
Owens never met the Man in Black, but he did have a near miss when he visited friends in Hendersonville, Tennessee, who revealed that Johnny Cash was their neighbour.
"I wrote a song on the first Felsons’ album called Virginia North, which was based on the name of the girl who was Johnny Cash’s first crush," he said.
"It was totally fictitious, of course, but I quite liked the idea of playing it to Johnny Cash. So I got to the house with this album and asked what were the chances of meeting him, not realising that next-door-neighbour means something different in Tennessee from what it means in Glasgow."
Recording Cash Back also provided Owens with a pleasant change of pace from his own work.
"Normally when you are doing your own songs, you can be a bit precious about it," he said.
"With this I could just enjoy it and with Johnny Cash you know you’ve got great material."
In another departure from his solo work, Owens will be going into the studio this month with the band Deer Lake, which he has formed with Larry Lean, formerly of Annie Christian, though fans of Owens’ solo work will be pleased to learn that he already has enough songs for an album of his own.
• Dean Owens appears at the Greenhouse in Dingwall at 2pm on Saturday, and will be performing in the evening at the Arch Inn, Ullapool.