NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Cash Tribute’s Little Things Meant a Lot

Sometimes, a Picture Is Worth a Thousand Songs

NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.

In the end, it was the simple eloquence of the pictures that overwhelmed me. The wonderful songs that were sung and the great stories that were told at the Johnny Cash Memorial Tribute concert in Nashville brought enough tears and laughter, God knows.

There was so much pent-up emotion in that audience, and so much grief that had been held back and dammed up, and so much would-be joy that had been repressed, that it all came spilling out in what seemed at times like an old-fashioned tent revival. I hadn’t seen so many standing ovations since the Beatles at Shea Stadium.

There were so many moments that weren’t anticipated. The taciturn Marshall Grant (of Cash’s original Tennessee Two band), whom no one expected to say much, almost broke down after only a few words but then seemed to draw strength from the audience’s spontaneous support and went on to not only find his voice but to fluently go on to talk for more than 10 fascinating minutes — without any prepared notes — until you almost wondered if he would ever stop. But those were fabulous moments for the ages. That was rock ’n’ roll, you know — he was present at the creation, after all. And this was the most eloquent that he has ever been in talking about it.

At the rehearsals that afternoon before the concert, Rosanne Cash became overcome with emotion and couldn’t finish her father’s song “I Still Miss Someone.” It was such a poignant moment that everyone in the auditorium hushed and fell into a reverent silence. As the most eloquent speaker — and artist — of the Cash Carter clan, Rosanne has had to be the public spokesperson at four Carter Cash funerals this year: those of her stepmother June Carter, her father Johnny Cash, her aunt Louise and her stepsister Rosey Carter Nix Adams. She has been the strongest person at each function, and at the concert, she delivered powerful renditions of “I Still Miss Someone” and “Tennessee Flat Top Box.”

The biggest realization of the night might have been the stark fact that no one yet comprehends just what country music lost with the passing of Johnny and June. I know one thing: it’s a much, much bigger loss than anyone had imagined.

But, about those pictures…

The narrow confines of the Ryman’s stage made set design for this concert a nightmare. The venerable old auditorium was built as the Union Gospel Tabernacle way back in 1892, and that stage was obviously constructed without the possibility that it would be used someday for music concerts and TV shows. The cramped dimensions of the stage dictate that only the most basic set d├ęcor and staging can be used. So, the simplicity of the Ryman itself forced simplicity of set design — which turned out to work incredibly well. For the Cash show, fabric scrims were suspended above the stage and black-and-white photographs were projected onto them. The result became starkly effective, even ethereal; and almost ghostly at times.

Looking at Cash roam through the years in these, along with his beloved June Carter Cash, was a travelogue like no other.

Seeing that stern, all-knowing visage floating above Cash’s former band mates Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson was eerily reminiscent of the group the Highwaymen’s image, in those salad days when Willie, Waylon, Johnny and Kris defied Nashville’s shunning of them as solo artists. They went on the road as a group to remind country audiences of what they had been missing.

But the family montage that unfolded was at once emotionally wrenching and gratifying. As the simple snapshots unfolded, we saw the straightforward drama of a family — a family marrying and having children, picnicking, walking beside the sea, just having fun. “It’s honoring the songs and his great body of work as well as who he was as a human being,” Rosanne Cash said of the montage. “It’s very human. There’s a lot of pictures of him with his children and grandchildren. We kept it that way so people saw what he was as a private man, as a father, as a grandfather. He would have appreciated that — for people to get to see the whole spectrum.”

Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of the Cash and Carter clan gathered at the Carter Fold in Hiltons, Va., last year ended the photo montage and was such a perfect and fitting send-off to Johnny and to his beloved June and to all their flock and to that whole era. … It could have been any American family come together for a group photo, but for the fact that this one family happened to be especially special on the music side of things. I feel gratified and grateful to have been allowed to share such a special evening.

The Johnny Cash Memorial Tribute: A Celebration of Friends and Family will air on CMT Saturday (Nov. 15) at 8 p.m. ET/PT and Sunday (Nov. 16) at 2 p.m. ET/PT.