Long time watchers of Johnny Cash may have felt as if they'd spied an old war
horse when the songwriting legend played several of his chestnuts during
his show at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. last Tuesday (Sept. 16).
Younger fans, however, likely glimpsed something more exciting: a veteran performer who is still electrified by the possibility for music to
thrive as a vital, living cultural entity.
"When I first heard this song, I said, 'There's no way I could sing a
Soundgarden song,'" said Cash, introducing "Rusty Cage" to the
invitation-only audience of 700. Exactly. Who else would fancy Cash a
Soundgarden interpreter at first thought? It's precisely Cash's
willingness to challenge himself in such ways that keep his recent albums
and performances fresh. That's not to say, however, that the 65-year-old
Cash has abandoned the standards in his songbook; after all, he's not an
artist out to challenge his audiences. Rather, Cash is there in part to
gratefully play the people's favorites; in return he asks that they occasionally follow
him to some unfamiliar places.
Cash, a writer with more than 400 songs to his credit, was in the nation's
capital to testify the following day before Congress about copyright law on
the Internet [see Addicted To Noise's "Music News of the World" for Sept.
18, 1997]. While such active citizenship may have been inspiring to some
in the audience, I suspect that many of the younger folks in the crowd were
moved to patriotic feelings by the experience of watching Cash, all
baritone and black dress, performing his opening number, "Folsom Prison
Blues" in the historic Ford's Theater. It was truly an American moment,
from the venue (where President Abraham Lincoln was shot), to the performer, to the material.
Unfortunately, Cash later attempted to recreate that kind of feeling with a
poem he'd written for the nation's flag, but wound up generating only
During the 90-minute performance Cash's back catalog ("Ring of Fire,"
"Ghost Riders in the Sky," "I Walk the Line") did reveal a fair amount of
wear. Still, some songs bore the mark of updating. "Get
Rhythm," for example, which the singer originally recorded in 1956 with the
Tennessee Two, featured a distinctly post-'50s gait, even displaying the
slightest hint of '70s funk in the drums.
It was Cash's newer material, however, that best displayed his own love for
performing and ability to draw an audience to his side. "Country Boy,"
from last year's Unchained album, was given a more spry
treatment than standards such as "Get Rhythm." Meanwhile, "Bury Me Not"
from 1994's American Recordings was delivered with true prayerful
cadence, as if the whole audience in Ford's Theater was expected to join
But it was "Rusty Cage" that received the evening's best reception, and
deservedly so. Cash and his four-piece backing band cut into the song with
verve and served it up to the crowd with lean muscularity. The
band -- including "Father of the Drums," W.S. Holland, who's played with Cash
for 38 years -- obviously enjoyed digging into the new material as much as
Later in the performance, Cash brought out his wife June Carter, a country
legend in her own right, as well as her daughter Rosie to perform a number
of Carter family classics, but at that point the previously engaging
evening took a sad turn toward hackneyed Vaudeville territory. Until then,
though, Cash had performed as a humble musician, one willing to please
fans, yet not the resigned legend they might have expected. Instead, he proved
himself a man who wants to keep contributing as a man, rather than as a star. [Tues., Sept. 23, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]