It was an impossible task to encapsulate, in a single public event, the breadth and depth of recording artist, performer, family man — legend — Johnny Cash, who died Sept. 12 of complications from diabetes at age 71. But generations of fellow singers, musicians, family and friends (many one and the same, as in-laws abounded) did their best to bear witness to the vast influence of his career and to celebrate his life in song.
His maverick spirit was represented by the likes of rebels Hank Williams Jr. (with the suitable baritone on “Ring of Fire”), Steve Earle (an apt “Folsom Prison Blues”) and, in slightly more of a reach, Kid Rock, who may in fact be a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, but has about as much connection to Cash as do Donny & Marie.
In a prime example of how Cash rejected musical boundaries right to the end and had others following suit, industrial rock outfit Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor was presented in a vid clip extolling his admiration for the country singer’s award-winning take on “Hurt,” which then was given yet another perspective as rendered live by a soulfully inflected and strong-voiced Sheryl Crow.
Crow also paired with Willie Nelson on a whimsical “If I Was a Carpenter,” with other matchups including Williams and Kid Rock doing “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang,” Larry Gatlin and Laura Cash on “Diamonds in the Rough” and Brooks & Dunn and Carlene Carter kicking up a rousing “Jackson.”
Marshall Grant, bass player for Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, went on at length about their early days and described how “I Walk the Line” was written as a ballad. Travis Tritt’s nondescript version at that original slow meter, though performed with the crack session house band, was living proof of how an element such as tempo can distinguish a No. 1 hit from just another track.
Gospel singers opened the show, and the entire Cash family and guests closed it. Such was the respectfulness of the occasion that seemingly every perf received a standing ovation; naturally, the most poignant and resonant moments came from those closest to Cash.
Kris Kristofferson joined Willie Nelson alongside Williams and George Jones (in the places of Cash and the late Waylon Jennings, as the Highwaymen) on “The Highwayman,” but it was during his reminiscences before his own “Sunday Morning Coming Down” that one could see how shaken Kristofferson still was at the loss of someone he regarded as a brother and kindred spirit. “John was a North Star … you could guide your ship by him,” Kristofferson said, choking up while quoting Bob Dylan.
Rosanne Cash sang an achingly beautiful and austere version of “I Still Miss Someone,” a song from 1958’s “The Fabulous Johnny Cash.” And her recorded duet with her father on “September When It Comes,” from her own recent return to album-making, “Rules of Travel,” proved a fitting musical love letter to accompany a family photo montage near concert’s end.
Prerecorded messages that spoke to Cash’s spirituality and humanity were sent from Ray Charles, Billy Graham, Dan Rather and Bono (Al Gore’s in-person testimonial only seemed pre-taped).
As with many tributes, show became a bit of an endurance test, especially considering the historic venue has narrow wooden pews throughout as seating. Stage production breaks, flubbed lines to be repeated and the occasional rambling anecdote extended the proceedings to nearly four hours. Tim Robbins was a dignified and able host.
In addition to VIPs in the audience, 500 tickets were distributed to fans via lottery. Event will air as a two-hour special on CMT Saturday at 8 p.m.