Johnny Cash is not God. But if you had to name a spiritual icon for the Americana music movement, could there be a more fitting choice?
Cash’s surprise appearance Friday night (Sept. 13) was the undisputed highlight of the first annual Americana Music Awards show. Cash’s lingering health problems recently resulted in a brief hospital stay in Nashville. However, the 70-year-old singer-songwriter appeared to be surprisingly robust when he showed up at the Hilton Suites Hotel in downtown Nashville to accept the Americana Music Association’s first-ever Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award.
In presenting the award, First Amendment Center founder John Seigenthaler cited Cash’s history of speaking out for the poor and oppressed, including prisoners and native Americans. Referring to Cash’s patriotism and deep religious beliefs, Seigenthaler noted, “At a time of tragedy and terror and civil strife and danger, he knows that we must reach beyond the bombs and the barriers to embrace Christian, Jew and Muslim as one. This ‘Man in Black’ is a symbol of rebellion against those whose minds are closed to other ideas.”
After offering his appreciation for the award, Cash alluded to the anniversary of 9/11 by telling the crowd, “After all this flag waving the last few days, I’m glad to see that on Sept. 13, 2002, we’re still down here waving the flag tonight.”
Cash then recited the lyrics to his hit, “Ragged Old Flag.” Cash’s 1974 recording of the poem was powerful, but his recitation resonated even more deeply Friday with his added references to Desert Storm and Afghanistan.
Later in the evening, Cash joined wife June Carter Cash in closing the show with younger members of the Carter Family . The musical group included her daughter Carlene Carter , niece Lorrie Carter and granddaughter Tiffany Anastasia Lowe (daughter of Carlene Carter and her former husband, British rocker Nick Lowe).
June Carter Cash began telling the audience about the contract she just signed with Dualtone Records, her plans for a new album and what led to the choice of her backing musicians for the evening. “I feel really good about this because, honest to goodness, I was always privileged to be married to John,” she said. “He’s always encouraged me to do what I do — and he’s always wanted to be a Carter brother.” Acknowledging the other family members onstage, she joked, “It’s a little bit of everybody who can sing. Some of them couldn’t sing worth anything, so we left them at home.”
After extended comments that included her recollections of the original Carter Family, she said to her husband, “Are you sitting down?” Cash got a huge laugh from the crowd when he responded calmly, “I’m just listening, baby.”
Cash added, “I learn a lot when she’s talking. I really do. I thought I saw everything, too. I thought I heard everything as it came along. As it went by, I’d tell a story and she says, ‘No, it wasn’t like that.’ Then I listened to her tell it and I said, ‘Boy, this sounds good. Now which story is right?’”
Cash sang background vocals on “Sinking in the Lonesome Sea,” a relatively obscure title from the Carter Family’s extensive song catalog. Then Cash and his wife sang a duet of “Temptation,” a Jo Stafford pop hit from 1947.
In the awards presentations, Jim Lauderdale was named artist of the year. Lauderdale also won song of the year honors for “She’s Looking at Me,” which he recorded with Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys on the album, Lost in the Lonesome Pines.
The AMA also presented lifetime achievement awards in several categories. Singer-songwriter T Bone Burnett, who produced the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack won in the executive’s category. Burnett was not present. The late Doug Sahm became the first recipient of the organization’s President’s Award. CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo, the Texas music legend’s longtime friend, accepted the award on behalf of Sahm’s family. Billy Joe Shaver picked up a lifetime achievement award in the songwriter category.
In accepting her lifetime achievement award as a performer, Emmylou Harris told the crowd, “We’re just a family. I think a lot of us felt like we were the only people who liked this weird kind of music. Now I see all of you out there. I do want to dedicate and share it with all of you who are in the trenches, all of you who color outside the lines and make music because you believe in it and love it.
“There might not be millions and millions of people out there who understand it, but there are people out there who hunger for something more. They do know the difference — and they are listening.”