There's a telling moment near the end of Johnny Cash in Ireland that sums up the man more succinctly than any scholarly dissertation ever could. The concert is winding down, and Cash has just introduced Sandy Kelly to help him perform "Forty Shades of Green," a song he wrote that the Irish took to their collective heart. "There's argument about who wrote this song," he says in that deep, rolling voice as he cues the performance. "I wrote it — in 1959." You hear an audience member shout, "No you didn't!" Cash doesn't break stride as the intro strains begin. "Yes I did," he replies with a wry smile that segues effortlessly into the song.
Okay, I'll admit you probably need to see the moment to appreciate it fully. Words don't really convey that flash of fire from those dark eyes, that spark of a knowing grin, that presence that commanded his surroundings and needed no confirmation. If Johnny Cash said it, or, even better, if he sang it, something in you knew it rang with truth.
Since in his death in 2003, there has been no dearth of posthumous Johnny Cash releases, ranging from the extraordinary to the banal, with a few jewels packed into the mix. Johnny Cash in Ireland falls into that last bunch. Filmed in 1993 as an installment of an Irish television series, this is hardly one of Cash's landmark performances. That's not to say, however, that it's a show to be ignored. Johnny Cash shows never were.
Johnny Cash and June Carter may have been past their prime when they did this show (indeed, Cash would quit touring about three years later), but the energy of this show still eclipses any number of contemporary performers. Sure, the format is reminiscent of the American TV series that ran 1969-71, but that only sparks vagrant memories of headier times. Cash was a gentleman outlaw then — a brilliant musical subversive who charmed his way into prime time through the universality of his music, and introduced us to a whole new generation of music troublemakers in the process.
Johnny Cash in Ireland shows that over twenty years later, he had lost none of that spunk. It may be an episode of the Dublin series Country from the Olympia, but there's no mistaking it for anything less than the Johnny Cash show. Featuring what was left of the legendary Carter Family, Kris Kristofferson, Sandy Kelly and his only son, John Carter Cash, Johnny Cash in Ireland is a revue showcasing some of Cash's greatest hits, as well as some of his older nuggets. "Folsom Prison Blues" is there, of course, but so is the rockabilly classic "Get Rhythm."
Cash doesn't showboat, though — he gives his band plenty of room, as well he should, since the Tennessee Three were instrumental to his unique sound. He never forgot his roots, or his love, and the Carter Family, with June figuring predominantly, take center stage on a few tunes, particularly "Wabash Cannonball."
Still it's the imposing presence of Johnny Cash that makes this an arresting performance. He manages to make "A Boy Named Sue" still sound fresh, and "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" eerily haunting. When Kristofferson joins him on "Long Black Veil," the awe he has for Cash is obvious. And well it should be — Cash paved the way for him, and an entire generation of musicians seeking to expand the parameters of country music.
Johnny Cash was undoubtedly one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century. He took his music out of the country ghetto, and made it something to which everybody from punks to rappers could relate. Johnny Cash in Ireland may be a minor chapter in his performing career, but it still offers a glimpse into his brilliance as a showman and a performer. And for anyone who grew up on the music of Johnny Cash, it will bring a nostalgic tear to the eye. It's unlikely we'll see his kind again.Powered by Sidelines