January 19, 1981 12:00 PM

Various artists

In the 22 robberies staged by the real Jesse and his gang, he never absconded with a treasure like this album recounting his saga. It was written by Liverpudlian Paul Kennerley (who also crafted the 1978 Civil War concept LP White Mansions) and produced by Glyn Johns, the studio master for the Rolling Stones and the Who. The 16 songs retrace James’ crooked path from a rebel boyhood in Missouri to his assassination by two bounty hunters in 1882. The insightful libretto isn’t just a guts-and-glory account, but poses the question of whether Jesse was a frontier Robin Hood or merely a greedy sociopath. Husky-voiced Band veteran Levon Helm is brilliant singing the title role. Emmylou Harris is affecting as Jesse’s nurturing, heartbroken wife. Johnny Cash plays his brother Frank, and gang members Jim and Cole Younger are portrayed by veteran roughriders Albert Lee and Charlie Daniels. Accenting their moving performances are spicy instrumentals that make this the best country song cycle since Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. It is surely worthy of a place on any “Most Wanted” list.

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