Johnny Cash Memorial Tribute – Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, TN)
It hasn’t been remarked on much, but a chorus of voices that had been sidelined or diminished for a good while were uncannily renewed in time to rise for this occasion, for the singing that needed to be done — not just Rosanne’s, a voice that had been literally unavailable to her until recent months, but Kristofferson’s, too, back stronger and expressive again, and Willie’s, and Carlene’s, and Steve Earle’s, and even the Possum’s.
The voices were ready.
Daughter Rosanne, at the outset, delivered a version of “I Still Miss Someone” so slow and true and reapplied, with loss so palpable, that much of the job of articulating the emotions of those gathered at the Ryman was done, right then and there. If the moment would not be surpassed, there was still much else to be said.
“We all found what we were looking for in Johnny Cash,” noted emcee Tim Robbins, late in the evening, with a double meaning that was right on point. It was one perceptive bit of narration edited out of the cablecast of this moving public memorial, which was also a family get-together, a celebration of Johnny Cash’s life and music, and a four-hour television taping.
The CMT version, reportedly watched by some 14 million viewers a few days after the event, was expertly edited to fit a two-and-a-half-hour slot, offering fine close-up views of key performances while including all of the performers from the live presentation. Perhaps a scheduled DVD release will add back numbers and narratives that had to be cut.
Among the TV casualties was the number that may actually have gotten the biggest audience response this night in the hallowed old hall — a rendering of the Jimmy Webb epic “Highwayman” that gave the Waylon/Willie/Johnny/Kris supergroup its name. Hank Williams Jr. took Waylon Jennings’ verse, while George Jones sang for Cash. This re-creation produced both a solo-verse by solo-verse roar, and a singularly exuberant standing ovation — not so much for the performance, which was fine enough (though Jones needed assistance with some of the lyrics, which were new to him), but because the audience was manifestly struck, all at once, by the size of each legend gathered up there before us. It was a grouping not so likely to be repeated.
The passing of Johnny and June Carter Cash, this quartet’s appearance reminded us in a flash, underscores the “who’s gonna fill their shoes” question for the country music that has both a past and a future — even as the ’80s generation of Stuart and Loveless and Skaggs and Gill have noticeably been stepping up to take a leadership role.
Cut from the televised tape, too, was the solo number by the man who asked the question about classic country’s large shoes in the first place — George Jones’ sweet turn on Cash’s “Give My Love To Rose” — and his especially poignant comment, seeing him at this age, that Johnny should be remembered as a man who always helped young, still underappreciated artists on their way up, and had helped him in just that way, in years on tour before the big hits came regularly.
The spiritual side of Cash got more attention in the auditorium than it did onscreen. Marty Stuart raised the point that “for many people, the only time they went to church in their lives was at a Johnny Cash show.” And there were taped audio comments and photos from Billy Graham, a longtime Cash friend, that didn’t make it to CMT.
No doubt the family came up with the excellent call to have Willie Nelson be the one to render, with quiet dignity, Johnny’s greatest gospel song, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord”. If no one could replicate precisely the shiver-inducing vocal steps on the word “tremble” as Cash and the Carter Sisters sang it, Outlaw Willie could deliver it most winningly.
As the often underestimated young musician Kid Rock was the one to point out, the dignity and spot-on appropriate choice-making (like that Nelson call) of the children of Johnny and June in the multiple public displays and interviews since their deaths may be the most telling sign of their lasting force.
It may have been the Cash children who chose to have Larry Gatlin’s very well-intended song written to describe Johnny’s life in the months after June’s passing (another tune cut from the cablecast). It’s called “A Man Can’t Live With A Broken Heart”, an only semi-true sentiment of the sort Johnny Cash avoided; he knew too well that many men do just that, and for a long time.
Unseen on television, too, was Al Gore’s surprisingly effective reading of the lyrics to Cash’s “The Man In Black”. It was perhaps omitted out of concern that they would have come off as the stuff of party politics — although the show’s introductory narration didn’t flinch, onscreen, from drawing a parallel between Cash and Steve Earle as both musical and political mavericks in Nashville’s terms.
Taste and a sense of privacy probably prevented TV shots of others gathered in the audience who’d been Cash family friends across time — Earl and Louise Scruggs, for instance, there as son Randy performed onstage. Or another of the famously talented Cash ex-sons-in-law who, unlike Crowell and Stuart, was not performing — Nick Lowe, warming to the event, and yes, applauding heartily for his former wife Carlene Carter, who sang “Jackson” quite well and June-rough with Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn. (Though Lowe probably applauded harder still that unaired George Jones solo.)
And then there were things television didn’t show that night because it can’t quite do it.
It didn’t show the attentive, expectant silence in the audience in the minutes before the memorial began, in the very room where Johnny and June first set eyes upon each other. It didn’t show how the dust rose up from the Ryman floor this night, casting those fine, looming portrait photos that draped the stage rear in an obscuring, almost mystical haze, as the blue smoke of the industrial side of Nashville had famously, regularly filtered through into the Ryman, turning the view ghostly, back in its glory days, even before the Man in Black stood right there, center stage, for his TV show, week after week, turning to say, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
Gathered on the stage at the end, as you could see on television, John Carter Cash and the large Cash family led the crowd in singing — not “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” one more time, but repeated choruses of an old favorite that had closed out Johnny’s final album: “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…”
For those of Cash’s own generation, “We’ll Meet Again” recalls the hopes of a different troubled day, a bit of musical history, really, the original Vera Lynn hit which played as a ray of sunshine during World War II’s Battle of Britain. For many of us, it’s a song impossible to hear without recalling its use over the mushroom-cloud fade-out of Dr. Strangelove, that deathly ’60s comedy dressed in black.
The song was, most of all, a celebration of a family looking forward and carrying through, of music that does not fade. In that song, we could all find what we were looking for.