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There is probably no other American musician more beloved than Johnny Cash, who has essentially attained something akin to sainthood. But then few other artists touched as many people's lives and gave back so much to their fellow performers, so it's no wonder that the man inspired such adoration.
The inaugural Johnny Cash Music Festival, hosted last Thursday at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, was a fundraiser to restore the New Deal-funded house in Dyess, where the Cash family moved in 1935. This year, most of the performers were either related to Cash by blood or, like Kris Kristofferson and George Jones, might as well have been Cash's brothers. Because there were so many performers on the bill, the concert felt a bit like eating off of a big, particularly delicious sampler tray — almost everything is great, but it all runs out too quickly.
That said, there were some great performances to be savored. When Jones and the backing band launched into the opening bars of "He Stopped Loving Her Today," the crowd went crazy.
Behind the stage were three screens, illuminated with photos of Cash throughout his life, with his friends and family. There were great shots of him and Kristofferson and a fantastic one, probably from the early '70s, of him laughing and hamming it up with Jones, who's wrapping his arm around Cash's neck while planting a smooch on his forehead.
While the goal of raising money to restore the Cash family home is a laudable and important one, Thursday night was as much a celebration of just how much Cash's family and friends loved him as anything else.
You could hear that love in Kristofferson's gravelly reminiscences of the man he first met backstage at the Grand Old Opry, when he was fresh out of the army and still wearing his uniform. The next time the two saw each other was when Kristofferson was working as a janitor at Columbia Studios in Nashville, where Cash recorded. After opening his set with the drunkard's lament to end all others, "Sunday Morning Coming Down," he moved on to "Here Comes That Rainbow Again" — the song "Johnny said was the best I ever wrote."
When Cash had finished his final, ultimately successful stint in rehab, June Carter asked Kristofferson to write a song for him. "I don't write on command very much, and I write slow," he said. "But I did it for June."
Kristofferson's voice, though cracked with age, is still undeniably capable of bringing tears to your eyes, perhaps nowhere more than on "Good Morning, John," the song he wrote on command, as one of his closest friends in the world was just recovering from a harrowing period of his life.
Of course, Cash's family members paid loving tribute to their brother, father and grandfather. Rosanne Cash kicked off the whole show with "Pickin' Time," which seemed very appropriate given the setting. John Carter and Laura Cash played a sweet rendition of Tim Hardin's "If I Was a Carpenter." Tommy Cash's singing voice was uncannily close to that of his brother on "I Walk the Line" and "Five Feet High and Rising." Joanne Cash sang the gospel hymn, "Come Home It's Supper Time."
Rodney Crowell and Rosanne sang "No Memories Hanging 'Round," which she admitted, was "a little weird, singing a duet with my ex-husband while my husband John Leventhal is here playing guitar."
But the two sang beautifully, and if there were any hard feelings or ill will between them, no one could tell.
The concert was being filmed by PBS for an upcoming special, which will be great exposure for the burgeoning concert. While the filming lent a somewhat stilted affair to the proceedings, with Rosanne and John Carter indulging in some do-overs, it didn't detract from the show in any serious way.
Overall, the event was a hit, and both the crowd and performers seemed like they were having a great time.
According to ASU, the concert was a sell-out, with 7,000 tickets sold and $310,000 raised to restore the Cash home.
Here's hoping that the 2012 Johnny Cash Music Festival will be even bigger and better. The Times took three busloads of Johnny Cash fans to the concert, enjoying Diamond Bear beer, Lombardi Limonata and en-route live music from Jay Dover, Bonnie Montgomery and Joe Sundell the whole way to Jonesboro. Perhaps even more buses will be in order next year.
On a very sad note, Marshall Grant, the original bassist in the Tennessee Two, died Sunday in Jonesboro. He was slated to play on a song at the concert, but had fallen ill. Grant was 83.