Johnny Cash tribute celebrates singer's contribution to American music

Tuesday, November 11th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ A diverse lineup of country and rock performers paid tribute Monday to the late Johnny Cash, performing many of his songs and recalling him as an original, independent voice in popular music.

Standing under a large image of Cash and singing her father's ``I Still Miss Someone,'' Rosanne Cash opened the show at the Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry.

Actor Tim Robbins was master of ceremonies for the show, which was taped and will be broadcast at 8 p.m. EST Saturday on Country Music Television.

Sheryl Crow performed ``Hurt,'' a song about drug addiction that Cash recorded in 2002. The song, written by Trent Reznor of the rock group Nine Inch Nails, introduced Cash to a younger generation of fans.

``When he gave his voice to something, he dedicated his voice and his intellect,'' Crow said.

Willie Nelson, George Jones and Kris Kristofferson sang ``Big River,'' and Travis Tritt performed a slow, bluesy version of ``I Walk the Line.'' Hank Williams Jr. sang ``Ring of Fire.''

Kid Rock, a rap-rocker who performed two Cash songs, said: ``He represents someone who would stand up for what they believe in, but also could hold a baby very gently and get it to stop crying.''

Cash died Sept. 12 at age 71 of complications from diabetes.

His stepdaughter, singer Carlene Carter, said Cash told her when she was young that it's better to be one-of-a-kind than one of many.

``We'd sit on the bus from age 10 on up, and he'd teach me songs,'' she said. ``He really educated us about music.''

Carter said the family has struggled through a difficult year with the death of her mother, June Carter Cash, in May, followed soon after by Cash's death. Last month, Carter Cash's daughter died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

``This is truly a tribute,'' she said of the concert. ``It's a way for us to celebrate the music they brought to the world.''

Bono, lead singer for the rock group U2, toasted Cash with a pint of Guinness beer in a recorded message. He said that whenever Cash landed in Ireland, the first thing he did was have a pint of the dark Irish stout.

``He was an oak tree in a garden of weeds,'' Bono said. ``He's not in a garden of weeds now. He's in heaven with June where all the saints are.''

Tickets were free and distributed by lottery. More than 2,000 people attended the show at the Ryman, which was built in 1892 for church revivals and is still known as the Mother Church of Country Music.

John Mellencamp, Brooks & Dunn, Rodney Crowell and Jack Clement also performed, while former Vice President Al Gore was among the crowd.

Tommy and Winsome Harwell, of Southaven, Miss., were among the ticket winners.

``I never dreamed we would be here,'' Winsome Harwell said. ``This is the first time I've ever won anything. I thought somebody was pulling a prank on me.''

Not everyone was as fortunate. James Bagoly and his wife drove from Dunnellon, Fla., without tickets, and were turned away at the door. ``We just came and took a wild shot, and we lost,'' he said.

With his raw, bare-bones sound, Cash helped pioneer rock 'n' roll in the 1950s, blending Delta blues with Appalachian folk.

``Cash was one of the very, very few people in American popular music who truly was unique,'' said Paul Wells, director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University. ``Cash transcended genre right from the get-go. And, perhaps more significantly, he maintained that kind of strong, individual identity throughout his entire career.''

Wells noted that Cash is often credited with inventing the ``concept album'' with his compilations about trains (``Ride This Train''), American Indians (``Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian''), and Western badmen (``Ballads of the True West'').

He added that Cash's albums recorded in San Quentin and Folsom prisons were popular music landmarks.

``I'd bet that there are millions of Americans who would never describe themselves as country music fans but know who Johnny Cash was,'' Wells said. ``They may or may not know much about his music, but they know about his ABC-TV show, his prison concerts, and maybe can sing a phrase or two of 'I Walk the Line' or 'Ring of Fire' or 'Folsom Prison Blues.'''

Steve Earle, who was to perform ``Folsom Prison Blues,'' said Cash came to Nashville as an outsider who broke conventions by writing his own songs and speaking his mind.

``He did things exactly the way he wanted to do them and stuck to his guns, and proved that that can be done and be done successfully,'' Earle said.