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Four hours and three intermissions after the start of Friday's second annual Johnny Cash Music Festival at Arkansas State University’s Convocation Center, the audience was finally treated to a pair of back-to-back cover versions of numbers made popular by the Man in Black.
That was when Rosanne Cash, the late legendary entertainer’s daughter and one of the driving forces behind the festival, returned to the stage with two of her father’s siblings, Joanne Cash Yates and Tommy Cash, along with Dierks Bentley and The Civil Wars. They blended their voices for stirring renditions of “Big River” and “Pickin’ Time.”
Previously, the crowd of 5,500 had heard these acts plus Willie Nelson sing a lot of their own hits and cover a bunch of artists (from Hank Snow to Tom T. Hall) without offering up much in the way of songs by Johnny Cash.
I’m guessing that was by design so this year’s festival would differ from the first. Perhaps the thinking was to present music that bore Cash’s influence instead of presenting rousing takes on some of his best-loved songs.
Nelson, of course, was a peer and a member of The Highwaymen, but Bentley and The Civil Wars are young artists who have their own distinct styles while still embracing traditional country music. Along with Rosanne Cash, they put on quite a show. Still, I kept thinking about what could have been if someone had offered a bit of advice or assigned a song or two.
For instance, the always likeable Bentley provided a lot of energy even though his portion didn’t start until after 10:45 p.m. and a minor power glitch. He shined on such hits as “Home,” “What Was I Thinkin’” and “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do” and belted out his exuberant anthem to partying, “Am I the Only One.”
He was great in North Little Rock in May and he delivered one heckuva performance Friday evening on Kris Kristofferson’s “From the Bottle to the Bottom.” But that just made me wonder how awesome he might have been on “I Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Folsom Prison Blues” or a fistful of other Johnny Cash hits I would have loved to have heard him sing.
Same for The Civil Wars. Quite simply, this fairly new duo — Joy Williams and John Paul White — is downright awesome. Williams and White are compelling to watch. “We don’t specialize in happy,” she told the audience, “we gravitate to the darker and sadder sounds.” A case in point, a pair of lines from the pair’s powerful, Grammy Award-winning “Barton Hollow”: "Won't do me no good washing in the river / Can't no preacher man save my soul."
Certainly, I feel like Johnny Cash himself would have approved. And he would probably have appreciated their take on his “Delia’s Gone.” But I was practically aching to hear their outstanding, playful harmonizing on “Jackson.” Maybe next time.
And while I’m at it, Nelson sang Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman,” Hall’s “Shoeshine Man” and Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Well, OK, he did sing “I’ll Fly Away,” which Cash had covered on an album of hymns, but I digress.
It really is always a treat to see Willie. As usual, he ran a bunch of his best-loved hits together in a medley, including “Whiskey River” and “Crazy.” This time around, though, it was just plain fun to hear him finish with a new one that he referred to as “one more gospel song” — the rollicking “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
Rosanne Cash opened the show with a fine, appropriate version of her father’s “I Still Miss Someone” and absolutely delighted on “Tennessee Flat-Top Box,” which was a hit for both of them. She slowed it down on Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” and served as a gracious and caring emcee for the evening, which also featured filmed segments of Johnny Cash on a pair of screens.
The annual festival helps raise funds for the restoration of Johnny Cash’s boyhood home at Dyess. I’m already looking forward to the next one, but keeping my fingers crossed that it will feature a few more covers of songs by the beloved Man in Black.