It was an evening of standing ovations last night (Nov. 10) at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, as performers from the worlds of country and rock gathered to pay tribute to the late Johnny Cash. The concert will be broadcast Saturday (Nov. 15) on Country Music Television.
The evening featured heartfelt renditions of Cash songs performed by friends and family of the entertainer, who passed away in September. Gracing the stage were family including daughters Rosanne and Laura Cash and son John Carter Cash, plus such luminaries as Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams, Jr., Brooks & Dunn, Willie Nelson, Travis Tritt, John Mellencamp, Sheryl Crow, Larry Gatlin, George Jones, Marty Stuart and Rodney Crowell. Actor Tim Robbins was master of ceremonies.
There were obvious pairings, such as Kid Rock and Hank Williams, Jr. on “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang,” Tritt and Stuart on “I Walk the Line” and Nelson and Crow singing “If I Were a Carpenter.”
Among the more unusual pairings were Nelson and Kristofferson (the remaining half of the superstar quartet the Highwaymen — which also featured Cash and the late Waylon Jennings), with George Jones and Hank Williams, Jr. for “The Highwayman.” Brooks & Dunn joined Carlene Carter to perform “Jackson,” the best-known of the duets Cash sang with his late wife June Carter, who died in May.
The show opened with the Fisk Jubilee Singers singing “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down,” followed by Rosanne Cash performing a poignant version of “I Still Miss Someone.” Crow offered a poignant take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” which Cash covered to great acclaim on his final studio album, “American IV: The Man Comes Around.”
Marshall Grant, one of the original members of Cash’s backing band, the Tennessee Two, got choked up when he talked about first meeting Cash and guitarist Luther Perkins at an auto body shop in Memphis.
“When we went in to record for Sun Records, we were going call ourselves the Tennessee Three, but [label head] Sam [Phillips] said ‘I think it should be Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two.’ That was when Johnny Cash was born, because before that, everyone called him J.R.,” Grant remembered.
Former Vice President Al Gore was eloquent in praising Cash, whom he said “spoke for the people who had no one to speak for them” before he read the lyrics to Cash’s song, “Man in Black.”
Offering messages on tape were CBS anchor Dan Rather, who acknowledged Cash’s affinity for the downtrodden, and evangelist Billy Graham, who spoke to Cash’s spiritual side. U2’s Bono and Whoopi Goldberg also offered taped messages.
Larry Gatlin was the only performer who played an original song not recorded by or with Cash. “The morning Johnny passed I tried to go back to sleep after I got the call,” he said of “Man Can’t Live With a Broken Heart Too Long,” “but I couldn’t, so I did what John did and I wrote a song about my feelings.”