Though Johnny Cash passed away in 2003, he's having a very good year in 2012. The latest in a series of events honoring the man in black — an 80th-birthday tribute titled We Walk The Line: A Celebration Of The Music Of Johnny Cash — drew a slew of GRAMMY-winning performers to Austin, Texas, for a lively Friday-night show on April 20 at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater.
Top billing went to Cash's surviving Highwaymen brethren, GRAMMY winners Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, who teamed with Shooter Jennings (son of late GRAMMY-winning Highwayman Waylon Jennings) and Jamey Johnson in a reunion of sorts on the song "Highwayman." Under a large banner bearing an image of Cash strumming a guitar, flanked by two silhouettes, Nelson also teamed with GRAMMY winner Sheryl Crow on "If I Were A Carpenter."
Crow sounded almost as if she were addressing Cash when she joked to Nelson, "I would definitely have your baby — if I could. If I didn't have two others of my own. And if you weren't married. And if I wasn't friends with your wife."
Audience members cheered lustily in approval, as they did throughout most of the show, a taped-for-DVD benefit for the childhood muscular dystrophy foundation Charley's Fund. Just hours earlier, many of them had watched as Nelson helped unveil his new statue in front of the theater, which sits on a street also named after him.
The event was produced by Keith Wortman with GRAMMY-winning producer Don Was serving as musical director. Was recruited Buddy Miller, Greg Leisz, Kenny Aronoff, and new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Ian McLagan of the Faces as the house band. The handpicked all-star roster of performers ranged from Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, Brandi Carlile, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Andy Grammer, Amy Lee of Evanescence, and Pat Monahan of Train to Ronnie Dunn, Shelby Lynne, Old 97's lead singer Rhett Miller, Lucinda Williams, and even Austin-based actor Matthew McConaughey, who, in addition to emceeing, sang "The Man Comes Around."
"We wanted a real broad, diverse group of artists," Wortman said backstage. "With Cash, you're as likely to find his music in a punk rock music fan, a heavy metal fan and a Nashville music fan, so he's not just a country music guy."
GRAMMY winner Monahan, who sang Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through The Night," commented before the show, "I think of Johnny Cash as a style, as you would think of clothing, or music or whatever. He was his own thing. No can can really describe Johnny Cash entirely.
"And no one could deliver a song quite like him," continued Monahan. "He sang hundreds of other songwriters' songs and he made those songwriters important because of the way he delivered what they were saying. There's not much that I don't respect about him, and I told his son [John Carter Cash] earlier that I'm almost more inspired by the love for his family than his music."
Lynne, who won the Best New Artist GRAMMY in 2000, sang "Why Me Lord," another song penned by Kristofferson, and delivered a spirited duet with Monahan on "It Ain't Me Babe," said Cash has influenced "all of us."
"We appreciate the majestic rebellion that Johnny gave us all in the music business. And he's also one of the great American icons of all time," she added.
Among the acts who earned the loudest applause in a night full of high-volume appreciation was the GRAMMY-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, the bluegrass quartet re-exposing the genre's African-American roots. Their rendition of "Jackson" was among many highlights. Earlier, co-founder Dom Flemons revealed the personal inspiration of Cash's catalog.
"Johnny Cash's music has had an impact on me as a rock and roll singer, a country singer, as a folk music performer and great interpreter of song. I just love everything that he's done," said Flemons.
Bandmate Hubby Jenkins added, "Johnny Cash was really great about putting emotional investment into every song that he sang."
Co-founder Rhiannon Giddens said Cash’s core was his voice and his subject matter, and no matter how much production was added, it never diluted his message.
Miller, who named his band after "Wreck Of The Old '97," a song popularized by Cash, said their intent was to sound like "Johnny Cash meets the Clash." He also recalled always picking "Ring Of Fire," a classic inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 1999, on the tabletop jukebox during childhood visits to a Dallas diner.
"I didn't know what it was about, but I knew that the guy who was singing it was singing it with everything he had," said Miller, dressed in black in homage to "one of my all-time heroes." "And there was so much heart behind it, and so much conviction. And nobody could sell a song like Johnny Cash. He meant every word he said, and if he didn't mean it, he made it sound like he meant it."
(Austin-based journalist Lynne Margolis currently contributes to American Songwriter, NPR's Song of the Day and newspapers nationwide, as well as several regional magazines and NPR-affiliate KUT-FM's "Texas Music Matters." A contributing editor to The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen from A To E To Z, she has also previously written for Rollingstone.com and Paste magazine.)