Johnny Cash would have been 80 years old on Feb. 26. A country music star who transcended commercial success and became a cultural symbol, Cash died Sept. 12, 2003, four months after the death of his beloved wife and frequent singing partner, June Carter Cash.
During Cash’s 80th birthday year, an all-star gathering, including his surviving friends and peers Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, performed a concert in the singer’s honor at the Moody Theater in Austin, Texas.
Filmed April 20, We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash, features host Matthew McConaughey and an eclectic cast of artists. The line-up includes country stars Nelson and Ronnie Dunn, Seattle singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, folk and country traditionalist quartet the Carolina Chocolate Drops, pop star Sheryl Crow, second generation country singers Shooter Jennings and Amy Nelson and, the show’s most unlikely performers, Pat Monahan from the rock band Train and Amy Lee from Goth-rock group Evanescence.
We Walk the Line, available as a two-disc DVD/CD set, and four individually themed CD collections of Cash recordings hit the market last week.
Highlights in the Austin tribute show include Carlile’s hard-driving “Folsom Prison Blues.” Often saddled with the nebulous, country-related Americana label though Carlile is, she rips decisively through Cash’s prison song with unbridled vigor.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops inspire big cheers when fiddler Rhiannon Giddens and percussionist Dom Flemons set the Cash and June Carter Cash duet, “Jackson,” afire.
Dunn, formerly half of country duo Brooks and Dunn, brings a pair of show-stealing female mariachi trumpet players and singers on stage for a triumphant “Ring of Fire.” The ladies dance, too.
Old 97’s front man Rhett Miller does “Wreck of the Old 97” like Celtic punk-rock band the Pogues rolling full throttle. Crow belts out a powerful “Cry, Cry, Cry” before joining Nelson for a soulful performance of “If I Were a Carpenter.”
In the 1980s and ’90s, Cash was one-fourth of country supergroup the Highwaymen. Highwaymen Nelson and Kristofferson join Shooter Jennings, son of late Highwaymen member Waylon Jennings, and contemporary country star Jamey Johnson for a majestic rendition of the group’s No. 1 hit, “Highwayman.”
A few Cash tribute selections seem far afield. Lee sings “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a Hank Williams song most identified with him. Monahan sings “Help Me Make It Though the Night,” a Kristofferson composition that was a hit for Sammi Smith in 1971 and recorded by many artists, including Kristofferson, Nelson and Cash.
Monahan ignores the obvious again by singing a duet with Shelby Lynne of “It Ain’t Me Babe,” a Bob Dylan song popularized by the Turtles.
As for the new Cash CD collections, The Greatest: The Number Ones puts all of his 19 No. 1 hits under one roof.
There’s a simple elegance and compelling directness about Cash’s best work. Arrangements tend to be minimal, wisely spotlighting the singer’s commanding yet welcoming baritone. As Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis writes in the Numbers Ones liner notes: “The suggestion is that a man so exacting in his use of words would not be speaking at all if what he had to say were not important ... .”
The first two The Number Ones tracks, “I Walk the Line” and “There You Go,” come from Cash’s 1956 Sun Records sessions. In the latter song, the singer’s voice resonates mournfully through Sam Phillips’ Memphis studio, a space that helped give birth to rock ’n’ roll. “You build me up and for a while I’m all aglow,” Cash laments. “Then your fickle heart sees someone else and there you go.”
Singing in a way that was just a step or two away from speaking, Cash also had a gift for storytelling. In another Sun hit, “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” a small-town beauty who achieves wealth and fame trades it all for the boy next door who works at the candy store. In an era obsessed with materialism and celebrity, her preference for true love, home and simple pleasures seems almost shocking.
Moving into the 1960s, mariachi trumpets brilliantly announce the June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore-composed tale of consumptive love, “Ring of Fire.” Again, the lyrics are piercingly honest. They come straight from the future Mrs. Cash’s heart, reflecting the deepest feelings of the writer and the singer.
Spanning 1956 through 1985, The Numbers Ones also contains Cash signature song “Folsom Prison Blues” and comic performances “A Boy Named Sue” and “One Piece At a Time,” Cash’s ensemble showcase, “Daddy Sang Bass,” and his final No. 1 song, 1985’s “Highwayman.”
Three other The Greatest collections — Country Classics, Gospel Songs and Duets — move deeper into the singer’s vast discography. Ironically, the country disc may be the least among them. Cash always was more than a country act. He’s in his element, however, for Gospel Songs, which holds one of his career highlights, a chilling ensemble performance of “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” featuring the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers and, in leading roles, Cash and his angel-voiced future sister-in-law, Anita Carter.
Guest stars galore shine alongside the Man In Black for the The Greatest: Duets disc. Anita Carter returns for a civil rights-era cappella performance of “Another Man Done Gone.” June Carter Cash joins her husband for “Jackson” and “If I Were a Carpenter.”
Friends Jennings, Nelson, Dylan and Billy Joe Shaver also appear in studio recordings and performances from Cash’s late ’60s and early ’70s TV show. There’s a delightful rarity on Duets, too, a 1979 recording in which Cash and George Jones humorously commiserate in another of the Man In Black’s convict songs, “I Got Stripes.”