NEW YORK -- In his first public performance in nearly two years, country music giant Johnny Cash capped an all-star tribute concert Tuesday night by singing two of his signature songs, "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line."
The 67-year-old singer/songwriter, who had watched from the wings as country performers Willie Nelson and Trisha Yearwood, rockers Sheryl Crow and Dave Matthews, rapper Wyclef Jean and others performed his hits, sounded as convincing as ever when he finally took the stage. But he looked worn from the battle he has fought against Shy-Drager syndrome, a degenerative disease.
Standing below a large black and white backdrop picture of his face, he
said, "[This is] my first time to walk onstage in 19 months."
He received a standing ovation after playing his 1956 country hit
"Folsom Prison Blues" (RealAudio excerpt). Then all of the evening's performers joined him for "I Walk the Line" (RealAudio excerpt), the song that first brought him to a wide national audience later that year.
"I remember it so well, it started like this," Cash said as he introduced "I Walk the Line." He kissed a weeping Emmylou Harris and hugged Kris Kristofferson.
The perfomers onstage with him, Cash said, included "people I love most and people I never met before." Among them were some of his earliest bandmates, including bassist Marshall Grant of his '50s backing band, the Tennessee Two. As the song ended, Cash grasped the hand of his wife, country singer June Carter Cash, and they walked off amid the applause.
The concert, at the Hammerstein Ballroom, was taped by the TNT cable network for airing Sunday, April 18.
Rock icons Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and U2 delivered performances on video for the tribute.
But it was rapper Jean, of the Fugees, who brought down the house with his stark, one-of-a-kind performance of "Delia's Gone." In introducing Jean, actor Kevin Bacon quoted another rapper, Public Enemy's Chuck D, who said, "country music and rap are diametrically opposed [except] for rebels like Johnny Cash."
Jean, sharply dressed in black -- Cash's longtime color of choice -- with a
long silver chain and black leather cowboy hat, added a rap to the song's
midsection, then brought the tune home by resuming his singing to a rapidly increasing tempo. He lifted his hat high above his head as he drank in the loud applause for his stunning transformation.
Among the more traditional performances that wowed the crowd were a
version of "Flesh and Blood" by Crow and country sirens Harris and Mary
Chapin Carpenter. Later, the silver-haired Harris raised goosebumps as
she added high harmonies to Matthews' vocal on "Long Black Veil."
Nelson, another country singing/songwriting legend, opened the show in a traditional vein with a medley of "Jackson" and "Orange Blossom Special." Crow traded verses and played accordion next to him. Later, Nelson and Kristofferson, who both sang with Cash in the supergroup the Highwaymen, joined Lyle Lovett for "Big River."
Rocker Chris Isaak demonstrated the poignant brilliance of Cash's ballads with his version of "Guess Things Happen That Way," a hit from Cash's legend-making days on Memphis, Tenn.'s, Sun Records in the '50s (Cash thanked Sun owner Sam Phillips from the stage).
Backstage, Isaak said of Cash, "It kinda pisses you off that [there is]
one guy with all that talent ... I could have used some of that." He
said he hopes to cover Cash tunes on record one day and "maybe collaborate ... I like what he did with Beck's song 'Rowboat,' " which Cash recorded for Unchained (1996).
Cash's wife, June Carter Cash, of country music's legendary Carter family, offered "Ring of Fire," a song she wrote with Merle Kilgore that became another of Cash's early hits. "This song had to do with when I first fell in love with Johnny Cash," she said. "He was pretty scary at the time. But I had a wonderful life with him."
Cash's son, John Carter Cash, and one of his daughters, Rosanne Cash, gave spoken tributes as images of their father in various stages of his career flashed behind them.
The show was hosted by Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight, who said his brother, songwriter Chip Taylor ("Wild Thing," "Angel of the Morning"), introduced him to Cash decades ago. "I never forgot the very first time I heard his voice," Voight said. "[Such a] potent voice."
"He's not an easy man to figure out," Voight said, "but he has created some of the greatest music this country has ever produced."