NASHVILLE — In story and song, in memories and photographs, Johnny Cash was honored and remembered by a host of family and friends at the Johnny Cash Memorial Tribute: A Celebration of Friends and Family at the Ryman Auditorium on Monday.
The program itself featured more than two dozen artists and speakers, with alternating tears and laughter, sorrow and joy, and dancing and celebrating. The concert will air Saturday on CMT at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
Cash’s daughter Rosanne Cash set the tone for the evening with a bittersweet version of her father’s “I Still Miss Someone.” Actor Tim Robbins acted as host. As someone who worked with Cash on film music and became fast friends with the late singer, Robbins remembered the singer’s human side as well as Cash the worldwide icon.
“Johnny was a hell-raiser — he was the first to tell you that,” said Robbins. “He could kick out these footlights here better than any of them. He was a renegade but also a seeker of the truth and a follower of faith. … He became a music superstar, sure, and a worldwide icon. But he was also a husband to his beloved June, a father to a flock of children, a grandfather for a gang of grandkids, and a friend and advisor to generations of younger singers and musicians.”
Musical combinations that highlighted the family-and-friends theme included a re-creation of the Highwaymen, with surviving group members Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson joined by George Jones and Hank Williams Jr. (filling in for the departed Cash and Waylon Jennings). And there was a rousing version of the well-known Johnny-and-June duet of “Jackson,” performed by Brooks & Dunn, with June’s daughter Carlene Carter high-stepping it in a black minidress.
Performers also included Larry Gatlin, Jack Clement, Johnny Western, Jimmy Tittle, Sheryl Crow, Cash’s daughter-in-law Laura Cash, Steve Earle, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Marshall Grant, Travis Tritt, John Mellencamp, Rodney Crowell, Marty Stuart, Kid Rock and Randy Scruggs. Those sending tribute video statements included Bono, Dan Rather, Ray Charles, Whoopi Goldberg, the Rev. Billy Graham and Trent Reznor.
At a party for members of the Cash and Carter families prior to the concert, former Vice President Al Gore remembered Cash as a good friend and a “great, great man.” “We had so many talks about things he cared about deeply. He was politically active, he testified before state legislatures on prison reform, and he campaigned for the rights of Native Americans, and he was real progressive,” Gore said. “He didn’t think the most important thing was to get more money for rich people. He cared about the poor and the downtrodden.”
At the party, the Country Music Hall of Fame presented Johnny and June’s children a guestbook signed by fans from around the world, and Sony Music gave the family a limited edition Hatch Show Print poster to commemorate the tribute concert.
It was a night for Johnny Cash fans as well. Fans from all over — even those without tickets — made the pilgrimage to Nashville. Many were lined up around the Ryman, waving to the artists as they arrived. Among those fans were Joe Franke and Carrie Goodeill, who traveled from Oakland, California, in hopes that they could get tickets at the last minute. Goodeill said, “I felt — because I think Johnny Cash is an amazing performer and he’s added so much to the music world — that he’s affected my life in certain ways, so I thought that it was only right to [come here] to pay respect to him.”
Asked why they journeyed so far, Franke said, “I had to. It’s not something you think about; it’s something you just do.”
Kelly Barfield and Jeff Barfield made the trek from Bethlehem, Georgia. “We were here for Waylon’s memorial, and we felt it important to also come for Johnny Cash,” Kelly said. “He was a man for everyone, a man for the saints, a man for the sinners, you name it, he sang for all of us. He said it himself — the reasons he wore the black, for the downtrodden, for the upper class, for everyone. He’s a man for everybody.”
Krystil King and Alan King made the trip from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Alan said, “When I grew up, it was Elvis and Johnny Cash. That was it. That’s the beginning and the end. Everybody could understand what he was saying. He had a universal message, and it was simply stated.”
The concert concluded with Cash and Carter family members gathered onstage to sing “We’ll Meet Again,” which Cash had recorded on his final album, American IV: The Man Comes Around. As artists from the concert joined the family after the first verses, the audience joined in on a sing-along as family members waved to the crowd and danced.