AUSTIN, Texas — Johnny Cash surely smiled down Friday night (April 20). His reasons were many.
After all, the special concert, “We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash,” unraveled a highlight reel. For two and a-half hours, bold names across the board — including Outlaw country pioneers (Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson), contemporary icons (Ronnie Dunn, Evanescence’s Amy Lee) and fringe heroes (Lucinda Williams, the Old 97’s’ Rhett Miller) — enlivened Cash’s blue-collar anthems with gleeful twists (Sheryl Crow’s “Cry Cry Cry”) and bold turns (Buddy Miller’s “Hey Porter”).
“Tonight we’re here to celebrate the Man in Black,” said host Matthew McConaughey early on. “Is everybody ready?”
Brandi Carlile certainly was. The pop songstress’ buoyant opening “Folsom Prison Blues” immediately sparked thunderous applause from the capacity crowd at the Moody Theater. Cash originals provided peaks all evening (particularly Andy Grammer’s beat-box “Get Rhythm”), but many offered reminders that the legendary singer also was a singular interpreter.
Lee’s languid “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” was stunning, Williams’ “Hurt” rivaled Cash’s own ache and the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ energetic string-band take on “Jackson” nearly imploded the joint. Train’s Pat Monahan doubled down with a deeply soulful version of Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”
Kristofferson constantly appeared in song (Shelby Lynne’s “Why Me, Lord”) and in person (a gloriously ragged duet with Jamey Johnson on “Sunday Morning Coming Down” ). The fast-paced show curtailed hope that he might speak about his kindred spirit Cash, but several others talked about his impact on modern music.
“Johnny Cash influenced a great spectrum of music,” musician-producer Don Was said backstage.
“I’ve been in a band for 19 years named after [“Wreck of the Old 97″],” Rhett Miller said. “[Playing that song tonight is] a perfect way to say thank you. Johnny Cash was so honest, you could hear it in his voice.”
Miller’s gloriously head-banging version closed the first 10-song set.
The second soared with equal measures swagger (McConaughey and local rocker Jesse Dayton’s “The Man Comes Around”) and swoon (Crow and Nelson’s “If I Were a Carpenter” with longtime Nelson sideman Mickey Raphael on harmonica).
“I would definitely have your baby!” Crow joked as what McConaughey termed as the “hottest band around” — including recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Ian McLagan (keyboards) and Buddy Miller (guitar) — dove into the latter.
Buddy Miller deserves particular kudos. The celebrated guitarist’s gnarly grooves sent Kristofferson’s rendition of “Big River” skyward and elegantly fueled Dunn’s electrifying take on “Ring of Fire.” Shooter Jennings (the late Waylon Jennings’ son) and Amy Nelson (Willie’s daughter) simply elevated the mood. The duo sang “Cocaine Blues” like a couple holding hands until the branch breaks.
Fittingly, former Highwaymen bandmates Kristofferson and Nelson teamed up with Jennings and Johnson to close the evening with an absolutely unrepentant “Highwayman.” Seismic cheers sent everyone home after the entire cast supported the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ encore “I Walk the Line.”View photos from the concert.