Johnny Cash Music Festival
Jimmy Fortune with fiddler Sydni Perry at the Johnny Cash Music Festival (Michael Johnson)

Vince Gill, Larry Gatlin, Jimmy Fortune and others gather to raise funds to restore the Man In Black's boyhood home in Arkansas

The "Man In Black" touched many different artists and genres throughout his career – and beyond. Saturday night's 3rd Annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro, AR showcased the influence that he had on country music. The concert, held at Arkansas State University, featured two members of the Country Music Hall of Fame -- and one that should be -- with each giving their time and talent to pay tribute to the iconic figure.

Host Tommy Cash took to the stage first, performing his older brother's classic "Ring Of Fire." He then introduced sister Joanne Cash Yates, who gave an emotional rendering of "I Still Miss Someone." The siblings teamed up for the Johnny & June hit "Jackson" before Cash introduced Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers.

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Kicking off their set with "Night Time Magic," the brothers demonstrated why they were one of the top acts in the genre in the 1970s and 80s. Performing a wide variety of their hits, such as "Broken Lady," "Houston," and "I Just Wish You Were Someone I Love," their harmonies are as intact and as tight as ever. And, as an entertainer, Larry Wayne Gatlin might be one of the best to come down the pike – ever. His humor – sometimes self-deprecating, was on the mark all night long, and his vocal magic was front and center. The trio also performed "Help Me," a hit for Elvis in the 1970s, that they performed at June's funeral in 2003. After hearing Gatlin on such hits as the powerful "I've Done Enough Dyin' Today" and their 1979 classic "All The Gold In California," you realize what an injustice it is that he isn't in the NSAI Hall of Fame or the Country Music Hall of Fame. Hopefully, both of those are oversights that will soon be corrected.

One name that is a member of that hallowed institution is Jimmy Fortune -- via his two decades with the Statler Brothers. The singer gave a reminder of just how many of the group's biggest hits came from his pen -- such as "My Only Love," "More Than A Name On A Wall," and the classic "Elizabeth." He gave a spirited take on Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman," which was the song that Lew DeWitt heard him perform at a Virginia club one night – unaware that the Statlers tenor would retire from the group not too long after, and would suggest Fortune for the job based on his performance. He also saluted the Cash / Carter relationship on the inspirational love song "Far Side Banks Of Jordan." Also a highlight of Fortune's set was the fiddle playing and vocalizing of Sydni Perry. 

 Closing out the night was the immensely talented Vince Gill. If the MCA recording artist has hit a bad note – vocally or on the guitar – in the last quarter-century, there's not a record of it. The Hall of Famer had plenty of hit records from which to perform, and he didn't let down, doing "Pocket Full Of Gold," "When I Call Your Name," and "One More Last Chance," which opened his set. He also made the crowd laugh with "It's Hard To Kiss The Lips At Night (That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long)," a cut from the Notorious Cherry Bombs album from 2004, jokingly blaming the song idea on his father. He also gave the crowd a gorgeous version of his 1994 hit "Whenever You Come Around," which he said was inspired by the first time he met his wife, Amy Grant. His closed his set with the classic "Go Rest High On That Mountain." Gill's band – including Paul Franklin, David Hungate, and Billy Thomas, were in fine form – especially on the cuts from the Gill / Franklin collection "Bakersfield." And, just like Buck had his Don (Rich) on stage, Vince has his Dawn, as in longtime harmony singer / percussionist Dawn Sears, who has been battling cancer as of late, was firmly in control of the harmonies as only she can do them.

Gill called everyone back out onto the stage for a closing set that included Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and a stunning version of "Amazing Grace" that once again, proved what great singers the Gatlin Brothers are, as Larry, Steve, and Rudy took control of the spotlight during the performance.

Once again, producer Bill Carter put together a lineup that made one proud of the heritage of country music – one that Johnny Cash himself would have heartily endorsed. Proceeds from the event go to help renovate the boyhood home of Cash in nearby Dyess, AR, as well as to fund several scholarships for local college students.

For more information about the cause, log on to JohnnyCashMusicFest.com