Review: Johnny Cash Tribute Concert Illustrates the Man in Black’s Legacy
On Friday night (Oct. 21) at Cleveland, Ohio's State Theatre, Nashville legends and country up-and-comers alike came together for a three-hour tribute concert for Johnny Cash, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 2016 Music Masters honoree.
The Hall of Fame's Music Masters series celebrates innovative and historically influential artists. Throughout the week prior to the concert, the Rock Hall programmed a variety of discussions, performances and educational events surrounding Cash and his legacy, with the full support of the late musician's family and collaborators. For example, Rosanne Cash participated in a 90-minute interview about her life, career and father, and although she couldn't attend the tribute show itself, she spoke in a video message about how her father was "full of love" and always told his kids, "Children, you can choose love or hate. I choose love." Additionally, the concert's executive band leader was John Carter Cash, and the nine-piece house band had direct ties to the Man in Black: Band leader / keyboardist Tony Harrell recorded with Cash, while the icon's one-time sound engineer, Dave Ferguson, played bass.
Drummer WS Holland, who played with Cash's group the Tennessee Three, was also on hand to contribute during Terry McBride's set; the 81-year-old drummed on a stand-alone snare during (and mouthed the words to) "Cry Cry Cry" and continued adding accompaniment to "I Still Miss Someone," during which Eilen Jewell hopped onstage to add vocals as well. Prior to his set, McBride shared the recollection that hearing "A Boy Named Sue" on the radio when he was 11 years old changed his life; Jewell, meanwhile, followed a later take on "Home of the Blues" by calling Cash "a musical Billy the Kid" and said that she still "talks about him in the present tense," since he still seems part of the musical world.
These stories weren't isolated remembrances, either; in fact, every performer had a chance to tell about what Cash meant to them. For gospel-country legends the Oak Ridge Boys, the influence was personal and professional: Joe Bonsall told stories about Cash's financial generosity when they toured together — the legend "paid us more than we were worth," he said — and how Cash championed and encouraged the group, including by saying that he "drew strength" from them. Amusingly, Bonsall also recalled the late-night recording sessions with the legend, where the Oak Ridge Boys would be beckoned to the studio at the last minute.
The veteran group was one of the night's highlights, as its song choices ("Will the Circle Be Unbroken," a sterling "Far Side Banks of Jordan" with backing vocalist Etta Britt) were tailor-made to its road-honed harmonies. Their brief, three-song set ended with a rendition of the standard "Supper Time," which the Oaks said was performed at the behest of John Carter Cash.
Another of the concert's highlights came early in the night: After opening remarks, Sam Bush and the house band opened the show with a spirited rendition of Cash's first single, "Hey Porter," which let the bluegrass talent show off his nimble mandolin moves.
"When he did a song, it became his," Bush remarked after his performance — an appropriate introduction to "Rock Island Line," which started slow, bluesy and languid and then picked up into a brisk trot. That segued into him switching out mandolin for fiddle to close his set with "Orange Blossom Special" (and joking that he was sticking to fiddle instead of also playing harmonica on the song "as a token of respect" to Cash). Bush's fiddle tone sounded amazingly like a train whistle, matching the locomotive footage projected behind him; later in the song, he plucked the instrument delicately with his hands, which added even more evocative textures.
The concert's hands-down highlights came during the middle portion of the night, which featured up-and-comers Charlie Worsham, Nikki Lane and Paul Cauthen, as well as audience favorite Mike Ness of Social Distortion. Not only did all of these musicians seem particularly thrilled to be playing with the house band — all of them either asked the audience to give the musicians a hand or expressed admiration for their talents — but their performances also showed how Cash's long shadow continues to inspire modern artists.
Worsham told one of the night's most charming stories, about how his dad was at the infamous 1965 Mississippi State University show that preceded Cash being arrested for picking wildflowers. Flash forward several decades, and Worsham said he too performed a festival there — and met idol Marty Stuart, whose autograph he has tattooed on his arm. Naturally, he then played an animated version of "Starkville City Jail," the tune Cash wrote about the flower incident; his brief set concluded with a heartfelt, melancholic take on "Sunday Morning Coming Down."
Mic in hand and cowboy hat on her head, Lane mentioned that she put off a vacation to be at the concert, and praised Cash because he wrote the "simplest songs that were the most meaningful." She strode around the stage with confidence during her set, which included "Tennessee Flat-Top Box" and a strong, measured take on "Don't Take Your Guns To Town," which found her belting out the song's lyrics with the right amount of storytelling-esque theatrics. Her voice also blended effortlessly with Cauthen's voice when he joined her onstage for the Bob Dylan-penned, Cash-popularized "It Ain't Me, Babe."
Cauthen seems poised to have a breakout year, judging by the rapturous response he received to his performance: a standing ovation and cries of "One more!" His rumbling baritone was gospel-tinged and very Cash-esqe, which made him the perfect choice to cover first "Big River" and then "Man in Black." On the latter song, he oozed mystery and rebellion by keeping his cowboy hat low and his face lowered as he clutched the mic and shuffled off some sharp shimmies.
Social Distortion have a dedicated fanbase in Cleveland, which explains why Ness received the loudest, most enthusiastic response of the night. He rose to the occasion of the support by starting his appearance with a slinky, stripped-down take on "Thirteen." But things really heated up after Ness asked for his electric guitar ("I feel like Linus without my blanket!" he said) so he could rip through a hard-hitting "Folsom Prison Blues" and then a churning, fierce "Ring of Fire," a song that Social D popularized. Not only was Ness' set the most raucous one of the night — in all the right ways — but it highlighted Cash's influence on rock 'n' roll. He assumed a steely look on his face that bordered on a smirk, which illustrated how much he was enjoying ripping up these songs in honor of the legend.
Punk legends X preferred to take a more stripped-down approach; in fact, they were the only performance of the night without the house band. The four-song set was highlighted by John Doe and Exene Cervenka blending their voices for a passionate, subtle and lovely version of "If I Were a Carpenter." Guitarist Billy Zoom assumed lead vocals on "Ballad of a Teenage Queen," Doe handled a solid "Guess Things Happen That Way," and Cervenka took center stage on a lighthearted " The One on the Right Is on the Left," which showed off Cash's humorous side. The music was anchored by drummer DJ Bonebrake, whose loose, shuffling style fit the musical choices and was augmented by guest upright bassist Ira Dean, who did a set of his own earlier in the show.
As the tribute concert reached its third hour, it turned to highlighting Cash's commitment to advocating for Native Americans. Singer-songwriter Bill Miller, who's of Mohican heritage, covered "I Walk The Line" and then discussed how powerful Cash's Bitter Tears album was for him. To accompany his subsequent performance of "The Vanishing Race," he brought out a man in traditional Native American clothing, who danced for the duration of the song.
Miller returned to the stage along with Sam Bush, Terry McBride and John Carter Cash to cover "Highwayman," the Jimmy Webb-penned song covered by Cash's supergroup the Highwaymen. Appropriately, Carter Cash stayed onstage and reminisced about his father, noting that even as he became sick near the end of his life, he kept recording and writing songs: "He kept letting his heart pull him."
What followed was a haunting take on Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," which the younger Cash delivered in a husky, dusky voice. Although the night's performers returned to the stage for a final jam session on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," the "Hurt" cover felt like the show's true ending — a somber but fitting exclamation point that illustrated the depth and breadth of Cash's musical career and legacy.
Unforgettable Johnny Cash Moments
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