Back in black

TNT's tribute to Johnny Cash was a reverent -- and occasionally rocking -- affair

Published April 19, 1999 5:45PM (EDT)

Reverence hung thick over TNT's "All-Star Tribute to Johnny Cash," televised
Sunday night, and to an extent, that's how it should have been.
Cash, 67,
an outlaw country performer before there was even a term (or an
acknowledged need) for it, and a songwriter whose material has been marked
by depth and passion over a span of more than 40 years, suffers from a
neurological condition known as Shy-Drager syndrome. He has been unable to
perform for almost two years, making his appearance at the end of the
tribute particularly noteworthy. The illuminati gathered to honor him --
including Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Chris Isaak, Lyle Lovett and
Trisha Yearwood, as well as (via videotape) Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen
and U2 -- couldn't help looking thrilled to be there.

Isaak poured his considerable personal charm into "Get Rhythm"; Lovett
ambled amiably through "Tennessee Flat Top Box." Harris teamed up with
Mary Chapin Carpenter and Sheryl Crow (on accordion) for a lovely reading
of "Flesh and Blood." Most moving of all was June Carter Cash's version of
a song she co-wrote with her husband, "Ring of Fire." It was written, she
said, at a scary time, when she'd just fallen in love with Cash. "This was
in the early years -- and he was kind of scary at that time," she
explained, half deadpan and half dead-on.

Nearly everyone valiantly rose to the occasion. Even the anemic-sounding
Sheryl Crow, barely able to find her footing when paired with Willie Nelson
for the opening medley of "Jackson" and "Orange Blossom Special," at least
looked game. (Nelson is formidable company to begin with; his
idiosyncratic, genius phrasing is enough to throw far greater singers than

But as pleasant and occasionally touching as it all was, somebody
had to run off with the evening. It sure wasn't Springsteen, who (via
videotape from Italy, where he's on tour) somnambulated through a solo
acoustic "Give My Love to Rose." Only two performers seemed aware that
interpreting a rebel's music note for precious note isn't the only way to
pay tribute to it. Wyclef Jean's astonishing "Delia's Gone" -- about a man
who, at first seemingly without remorse, shoots his woman dead --
underscored the link between Cash's brand of country and gangsta rap (and
put a fillip on the idea that apparent coldness doesn't always denote
heartlessness). U2 sent along a videotaped version of "Don't Take Your Guns
to Town," a reggae reading of the song that breathed a different kind of
life into it.

Yet when Cash himself took the stage at the end of the show for two numbers
-- looking puffy and worn, but with the devil unmistakable, still, in his
eyes -- he showed them all up. When he got to the line "I shot a man in
Reno just to watch him die," only one lone soul in the audience cheered.
That the rest of the crowd didn't is a little like refusing to sing along
with a gospel choir in a Baptist church, but it's clear that the assembled
meant well. The majority of them had the decency to wear black.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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