This CD+DVD set documents an all-star tribute to Johnny Cash that was held in April 2012 in Austin, Texas. The lineup includes Cash’s outlaw peers, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, and a lengthy list of No Depression favorites that includes Buddy Miller, Rhett Miller and the Carolina Chocolate Drops; the latter burn up their cover of “Jackson,” with Rhiannon Giddens sawing her fiddle and channeling the sass of June Carter Cash at the same time. The nineteen tracks also include pairings of Kristofferson with Jamey Johnson, Nelson with Sheryl Crow, and Shooter Jennings with Amy Nelson. Nelson, Kristofferson, Jenningsand Johnson band together to sing the Highwayman’s “Highwayman,” and the full ensemble gathers to close the show with “I Walk the Line.”
The song list stretches from Cash’s first single “Cry Cry Cry” (and its flip “Hey Porter”) to his last, “Hurt,” the latter sung pained, weary and a bit wandering by Lucinda Williams. The house backing band (led by Don Was and featuring Kenny Aronoff, Ian McLagen, Greg Leisz and perennial all-star Buddy Miller), draws continuity across the performances, and the live setting wrings terrific emotion and energy from the singers. Brandi Carlile may not have done jail time, but her growls and blue yodels hit the notes of anger, desperation and resignation Cash wrote into “Folsom Prison Blues.” Shelby Lynne sings “Why Me Lord” with arresting gospel fervor, and Iron & Wine’s “The Long Black Veil” is both sad and stalwart.
The 64-minute CD omits the stage patter (including that of stage host Matthew McConaughey) presented on the 77-minute DVD, and reorders the set list. The widescreen, multi-camera video (with either stereo or Dolby 5.1 audio) adds dimension to the performances, as you see the emotion the vocalists put into their performances and the distinction with which the instrumentalists pull together as a band. Drummer Kenny Aranoff plays with joy and freedom on “Get Rhythm,” Don Was sways blissfully with his bass as he watches Buddy Miller solo, and McGlagen’s fingers fly across the piano keys for “Wreck of the Old 97.” The DVD extras include Willie Nelson rehearsing “I Still Miss Someone,” McConaughey performing “The Man Comes Around,” artist interviews and a short making-of video.