- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Nashville, Tenn. - Before performing at Monday night’s memorial concert for Johnny Cash at the Ryman Auditorium, Kid Rock was asked about the country music legend’s legacy. Nervously smoking a cigarette to the filter, Kid said he wasn’t too good with words and asked what “legacy” meant.

That’s pretty much what this assembly of scores of Mr. Cash’s closest friends, collaborators and peers was trying to answer: What had the man and his music meant to them?

When Johnny Cash, 71, died Sept. 12 of complications from diabetes, country music lost one of its few living holy relics. Mr. Cash was raised dragging a cotton sack through government-issued land in Dyess, Ark., and he was among the last of a generation of country singers whose music was born in the hills and shotgun shacks of which he sang.

Mr. Cash was part of Sun Records’ freshman class in the ‘50s and rode to fame alongside the likes of Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. With Elvis, Mr. Cash was one of the few artists to be inducted into both the country and rock ‘n’ roll halls of fame.

Monday night’s memorial concert was a field of dreams, with everyone from Marshall Grant, Mr. Cash’s original bass player in the Tennessee Two, to Kris Kristofferson emerging from the musical cornfield.

After the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ gospel prologue, “Ain’t No Grave That Can Hold My Body Down,” the evening took off with Rosanne Cash singing “I Still Miss Someone,” accompanied by just a Fender Telecaster and an upright bass. Miss Cash’s somber vocal set the tone for an evening of jaw-dropping performances and standing ovations.

Ironically, more new rock artists were represented than new country artists. A lot of this had to do with the sterile and safe direction Mr. Cash believed country music had taken. In his later years, Mr. Cash seemed to identify more closely with the unfettered rebellion of people such as Kid Rock than with the new hair-spray cowboys of Nashville’s Music Row.

In keeping with this spirit, John Mellencamp offered up a bluesy “Hey Porter,” the first song Mr. Cash ever recorded. Kid Rock later performed “What Is Truth” (though his guitar wasn’t plugged in) and “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang” with Hank Williams Jr.

The evening, however, belonged to the old school. Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson (with the late Waylon Jennings and Mr. Cash, the two formed the country supergroup the Highwaymen) and George Jones demonstrated why Nashville was built around their names. They sang a memorable early Cash story song, “Big River,” and it’s not likely that Music City will see a performance with that much star wattage again anytime soon.

Marty Stuart, one of Mr. Cash’s original guitar players, backed up Travis Tritt’s slowed down and milked version of “I Walk the Line,” the hit single that propelled Mr. Cash to stardom. It was just the way Johnny Cash had written it before Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, Mr. Cash’s producer, sped it up for the radio.

In the end, the evening was a metaphor for the paradoxes and passions of Mr. Cash’s life. The Ryman was originally a church, and the array of music-industry faces lining the oak pews formed a picture of the tension Mr. Cash felt between his faith and the price tag of fame.

During the last quarter of his life, Mr. Cash immersed himself in his faith and spoke openly about his drug addiction and the scars it left on his family. In a prerecorded message, U2’s Bono declared that Mr. Cash was akin to a saint on Earth “because he kept reminding us how human he was.”

Sheryl Crow took the stage to pay tribute to the vulnerable heart of the man with a version of “Hurt,” the final release of Mr. Cash’s career. Miss Crow sang: “I wear my crown of thorns on my liar’s chair/ Full of broken thoughts I cannot repair/ Beneath the stain of time, the feeling disappears/ What have I become, my sweetest friend?/ Everyone I know goes away in the end. You could have it all, my empire of dirt/ I will let you down; I will make you hurt.”

Johnny Cash had the dubious distinction of being one of few people ever to be banished from the Grand Ole Opry. During a show in 1965, he was so hopped up on amphetamines, he smashed all 53 footlights on the stage of the Ryman with the base of his microphone stand. He was told never to come back.

Few missed the irony of having the Johnny Cash memorial concert at the Ryman, the longtime home of the Opry. It was a fitting setting in which to honor a man whose world was defined not only by his musical contributions, but also by the contradictions of the music business.

Billy Cerveny is a singer-songwriter and free-lance journalist based in Nashville. He can be contacted at www.billycerveny.com.

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