I often have trouble with tribute concerts, concerts where a collection of performers gather to perform the music of one specific musician. It's been my experience people far too often get caught up in the event and the iconography of the person being honoured and forget about the reason they're honouring him or her - the music they created. The larger and more significant a figure it is being celebrated the larger the likelihood is of this happening. So it was with some trepidation that I started to watch the DVD of Johnny Cash: We Walk The Line - A Celebration Of The Music Of Johnny Cash, being released August 7 2012 by Legacy Recordings, as there's probably no bigger icon in American music than Johnny Cash.
Since Cash's death there have been a number of tribute albums released and any number of people have taken to covering his music. While there have been some amazing versions of his songs, everything from punk All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash, one of the best, to hip hop, Johnny Cash Remixed, they've not been able to capture the entire essence of the man and his music and why it appealed to such a cross section of society. To be honest the only reason I even bothered to check out this latest effort was because I read that Don Was was musical director and had helped put together the lineup. I've been impressed with events similar to this one that Was has been involved with, so I thought it would be worth taking a chance on.
The concert, which took place back in April 2012 in Austin Texas, was the kick off to this year's celebrations in honour of what would have been Cash's 80th birthday. Over the past couple of years Legacy Recordings, in conjunction with the Cash family, have been releasing collections of Cash recordings that have been laying around in vaults for years. As their contribution to the birthday proceedings, not only are they releasing this DVD/CD set, but the same day will also see the release of four CDs of Cash's music, each celebrating a different aspect of his musical character. The Greatest: The Number Ones, The Greatest: The Gospel Songs, The Greatest: Country Songs and The Greatest: Duets. Looking at the track listing for each of these CDs will give you a clue as to how it was always impossible to pigeon hole Cash - even when you divided his music up by genre or style.
The country songs were culled from a list of a hundred Cash had considered essential for his daughter to be aware of and include everything from "Long Black Veil" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" to his version of "The Gambler" (which he released before Kenny Rogers). However, as far as I'm concerned it's the duets collection which is the most telling. Naturally it includes "Jackson" and "If I Were A Carpenter" which he and June Carter Cash were famous for singing together. Yet unlike what you'd expect from this type of compilation they're not all love songs performed with a female vocalist. In fact nine of the fourteen tracks feature him singing with another man - everyone from Bob Dylan, "Girl From The North Country", to George Jones, "I Got Stripes".
Which is why anything less than even an attempt to reflect the idiosyncratic nature of Cash's musical tastes and his appreciation for all types of music would have made this celebration of his music a failure. My worst fear was it would turn out to be a gathering of Nashville types twanging their way through his music and sucking the life out of it by covering them with rhinestones and cheap sentimentality.
Seeing that both Willie Nelson and Kris Kristoffersson were among the performers was a relief and the fact the African American string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, were also in the line up was also a good sign. However, there were a number of names on the list I didn't recognize which still troubled me. However, I should have trusted my initial reaction to Was' involvement, because nearly each person involved went the extra distance to try and capture the essence of Cash's spirit.
Film actor Matthew McConaughey hosted the evening and wasn't too obvious about reading from the teleprompter - in fact as the night went on he loosened up more and more and was obviously starting to enjoy himself. (One of the special features is him doing a credible job of performing "The Man Comes Around").
Was and executive producer Keith Wortman compiled their ideal Cash set list and each of the invited performers were asked to select the Cash song they'd like to perform. In the special features Wortman says he and Was were pleasantly surprised when they compared their list with the list of requests submitted by the performers and the two were almost identical. Something that people are bound to wonder about, is how many of the songs are ones Cash didn't write. Yet it's only by variety of styles he recorded that one can really appreciate him as both an artist and a human being. How many people out there do you know that can perform both "Hurt" and "Why Me Lord" with equal sincerity and credibility.
Which is why you need as diverse a group of performers who were gathered together in Huston that night to bring Cash's music to life properly. Highlights, at least for me, included "Get Rhythm", performed by pop singer Andy Grammer. He injected some much needed fun right from the start by doing hip-hop style vocals percussion and by so obviously enjoying himself.
Buddy Miller, who was also lead guitarist for the "house" band (Don Was bass, Greg Leisz steel guitar and mandolin, Kenny Arnoff drums and Ian McLagan keyboards) rocked the house with his version of "Hey Porter", Shelby Lynne was stellar singing Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", Rhett Miller, lead singer of the Ol' 97s, tore the stage up with his version of, what else, "Wreck Of The Old '97", Ronnie Dunn brought out the trumpet section from a Mariachi Band for his version of "Ring Of Fire" and Lucinda Williams broke everyone's hearts with her rendition of "Hurt".
Nearly everyone of the twenty tracks on the disc are worth mentioning but there are a few more which stood out in particular. Putting the Carolina Chocolate Drops on stage was a beautiful move by the show's organizers, as it not only reminded people of the African American roots of so much of Cash's music, it also showcased one of the best string bands in America today.
If their version of "Jackson", and leading the ensemble in a gospel style version of "I Walk The Line" to close the night, doesn't have people scrambling to buy their records there's no justice in the world. Yet for all the youthful exuberance on display it was still the two old guys, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, who stole the show. Maybe it's because they represented a tangible connection to Cash through so many years of associating the three of them together that made the heart swell listening to them perform, but it was also just great to see them on stage again.
Kristofferson first joined Jamey Johnson for a rendition of his "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and then he sang "Big River". Kristofferson's voice hasn't weathered the years that well, but for all its current limitations there's still something wonderful about listening to him growl his way through anything. On the other hand Nelson's voice seems to be becoming more and more velvety as he ages. First performing "If I Were A Carpenter" with Sheryl Crow, then "The Highwayman" with Shooter Jennings, Kristofferson and Johnson, and finally, as a special feature on the DVD but included on the CD, "I Still Miss Someone", he sounds even more effortless then ever. It's like he just opens his mouth and liquid gold rolls out as a balm to ease your wounded soul.
The special features include interviews with nearly everyone of those performing or involved with the concert. What struck was how many times somebody said a variation of "you'll find Johnny's music in the record collections of everyone from punks to middle of the road country fans". That one man had something that could appeal to such a huge cross section of the population says something about both his abilities as a musician and who he was as a human being.
There's probably no one person in popular music today who can connect to that many people. Even finding the right mix of performers whose combined talents come close to matching what Cash was able to accomplish with his music is a nigh on impossible job. But on this night in Huston they came as close as I think anyone will ever come. No matter what your reason for liking Johnny Cash there's something in this collection for you. If anybody was looking to find a way to establish common ground between all the disparate elements in American society today the music of Johnny Cash would be a great foundation to build upon.
(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - We Walk The Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash [DVD+CD] on Blogcritics.
(Originally posted August 2012)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.