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 the songwriter 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 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, which is 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 kickoff 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 other CDs of Cash’s music, each celebrating a different aspect of his musical character, including gospel, country, and a duets release—they 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 100 Cash had considered essential for his daughter to be aware of. They 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 14 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 lineup 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.
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 section, 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.
With Cash’s variety of musical styles, you need a diverse a group of performers like the ones who were gathered together in Austin 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 and percussion, and by so obviously enjoying himself.
Buddy Miller, who was also lead guitarist for the “house” band (Don Was on bass, Greg Leisz on steel guitar and mandolin, Kenny Aronoff on drums and Ian McLagan on keyboards) rocked the house with his version of “Hey Porter”. Shelby Lynne was stellar singing Kristofferson’s “Why Me Lord”, while Rhett Miller, lead singer of the Old 97’s, 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 every one of the 20 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, he performed “If I Were a Carpenter” with Sheryl Crow, then “The Highwayman” with Shooter Jennings, Kristofferson and Johnson. Finally, as a special feature on the DVD but included on the CD, he performed “I Still Miss Someone”, where he sounded 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 includes interviews with nearly every one of those who performed or was involved with the concert. What struck me 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 Austin, 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.