The Man Comes Around

My husband and I were in Sydney, Australia, on Sept. 13, 2003, when we heard the news of Johnny Cash’s passing. Actually, we didn’t hear it as much as we delved to find it — we had brought our Powerbook and connected it to a slow, unreliable dial-up Internet connection in our hotel room. I was checking Nashville’s daily newspaper intermittently to feel some connection to my home on the other side of the world, and The Tennessean had, of course, put the story right up front in five-point font. I was sorry I couldn’t read the news in hard black and white for myself.

We were disappointed that our long-awaited trip had taken place the very week an event of such significance took place at home. Folks hereabouts had been speculating for months that Cash wouldn’t be long for this world after the departure in May of his wife of 36 years, June Carter Cash. (In the interest of disclosure, I am not closely related to the singing Carter family to the best of my knowledge, despite a wealth of ancestors in southern Kentucky and Virginia.)

I remember vividly the first time I heard “We’ll Meet Again,” the last track on the last album Johnny ever released. Lyrics from the song were printed on his funeral program … it was as though he realized he wouldn’t be here for much longer.

By the time we arrived back in Nashville, having been treated to tears and sympathy from like-minded music fans across the globe (Australia’s Bob Dylan, the mighty Paul Kelly, played both “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ring of Fire” when we saw him in Cairns), most of the action was past. The Tennessean reported that Johnny’s funeral had taken place and no more public events were planned. There were still smatterings of tributes to our local hero, from the framed portrait in the lobby of the Frist Art Center to the hastily painted tribute to the Man in Black on the warehouse across the street from the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Curious to see what I’d missed, I began to make daily forays onto johnnycash.com, a fan-club web site built by family friend and archivist Bill Miller. One online anecdote discussed an interview Johnny had with Larry King. When asked what he did when he saw a fan coming toward him in a restaurant, Johnny replied, “I put down my fork.” This mindset becomes immediately evident to even the most casual visitor to johnnycash.com, in the wisdom and benevolence of various family members there. In addition to sharing of themselves quite freely, the family gifted the web site fan club with a few hundred tickets to Johnny’s Nov. 10 memorial at the world-famous Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry and the site from which Johnny himself was once bodily ejected upon drunkenly kicking out its footlights.

I won a couple of tickets. Later it was discovered that a total of 20,000 people had applied to the public lottery, set up to distribute the 500 seats left after friends and family had been accommodated. To judge from the frenzy of posting to the message board in the week before the concert, people would have fought and died to get those tickets — not that anyone was eager to do anything of which Johnny might have disapproved. Cash fans as a whole keep a mannerly civility, unusual for such a diverse group of people.

Finally, the day arrived. Fans from johnnycash.com arrived from as far as Czech Republic. Old, young. Grizzled, smooth. Stylish and not so cool. Bald and blonde and red. Fans of every possible description, sharing one thing in common — that unearthly friendliness and near-fanatic devotion to Cash’s 5,000-song output.

Eager to lend a hand, I swung by the fan club hotel on the way to the planned graveside remembrance to see if any out-of-towners needed a ride. TV cameras were thick on the scene, and the back of my head made it into a couple of the broadcasts later that day. After picking up some folks from New York City and Macon, Georgia, we made our way convoy-style up to the cemetery, to be met at the curbside by a sea of black. Several dozen people stood by the grave, which is located incongruously in a suburban development north of Nashville. The list of songs to be performed included mostly Johnny’s gospel hits: “Peace in the Valley,” “Were You There,” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” At one point a tall, husky fellow in the very back began to break out in loud, mewling sobs. You just don’t see grown men cry in public in this part of the world very often.

Unfortunately nobody had thought to print out chord progressions for most of the songs, so after those of us with guitars managed to hack our way through a few of them, the crowd mostly dispersed until later.

It’s hard to describe that sense of Event that hovers around the Ryman auditorium when Nashville’s legendary performers come out to play, and unbilled guests could be virtually anyone. The venue itself is a 150-year old former gospel auditorium. It’s been refitted with new hardware and oak pews, but the soul of the building is still very much in evidence. The alley behind the Ryman, next to Jack’s Barbecue, is a spot where you may well catch a glimpse of Marty Stuart or Dwight Yoakam leaning up against the building wearing stovepipe jeans and a fringed jacket. The spirit of past performers like Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton hangs thick in the air. The building itself is relatively unassuming, which in a way affords it more authority. I’ve never seen a bad show there. It’s refreshing to see performers of the highest caliber become truly humbled to step out onto its stage.

A muted whisper rose and fell as folks looked around to see who else was there. There’s a real sense of possibility in a venue where Willie Nelson or Keith Richards may turn up on any random Saturday night. Eventually the house lights dimmed as the stage lights came up. Silence came over the crowd.

From backstage left, Tim Robbins strode to a small podium set up in the left-hand front corner of the stage. Wearing a black suit, Robbins brought wit and good humor to the evening’s proceedings, telling stories about his 11-year-old’s love for Johnny and cracking wise about Oscar presentation attitude as it compares to the Grand Ole Opry. A controversial choice, Robbins met Cash when Johnny recorded “In Your Mind” for Robbins' anti-death penalty film “Dead Man Walking.” The Cash family took a lot of flak in the local press for inviting an event host with such outspoken political views, but the family maintained that the event would be planned the way Johnny wanted it. And so it was.

From both sides of the auditorium streamed Nashville’s Fisk Jubilee Singers, performing a rollicking version of the traditional hymn “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down.” (According to daughter Kathy, this was one of Johnny’s favorite songs to sing around the house in his last few months.) The Jubilee Singers are the oldest African-American vocal group ever to be recorded, first appearing in 1890. Their magic continued unsurpassed as they performed.

Soon Johnny’s eldest daughter Roseanne Cash walked out from behind stage left. The band took its place. Roseanne thanked the crowd for coming and spoke for a while:

One of the sweetest moments of my life occurred several years ago, the last time my dad played Carnegie Hall. I had been a little angry with him the day before the show and had brought up some old grievances, which he listened to gracefully. He invited me to sing “I Still Miss Someone” with him that night. I demurred. The day of the performance I had a fierce headache and told him I could not do it. I went to his hotel that evening before the show. He asked again. I declined, but as I watched him walk out of the room I suddenly realized what it meant to him and agreed to sing the song. That night, as we sang together all the old pain dissolved. I felt the longing to connect completely satisfied. Under the lights, in the safety of a few thousand people who loved us like crazy just then, I got something from my dad that I’d been trying to get since I was about 6 years old. It was truly magic, for both of us. I don’t think we’ve ever been so close.

The band launched into “I Still Miss Someone,” one of Johnny’s first songs for Columbia in 1959 and a song particularly special to a couple of Johnny’s daughters.

Next, Tommy Cash — Johnny’s younger brother — came out from stage right, wearing a blue leather suit and looking like a ruggedly younger version of Johnny himself. He said a few words about his brother’s intelligence and integrity. Then he introduced Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and George Jones to perform Cash’s hit “Big River.” It was an up-tempo, swinging version of the song, an upshift in a night that could endlessly turn corners between the joys in Johnny’s life and its well-documented sorrows. How could an evening devoted to memorializing the man overlook the playfulness and good humor of the man who recorded “A Boy Named Sue” in front of hundreds of hardened prisoners at his legendary concert at San Quentin?

Part of Johnny’s magic was his ability to make us see the tenderness inside the tough man who wore black, and to see the irony of the failure of the strength of the mightiest nation of the world when it came to caring for its least able citizens. Johnny’s sentiment could seem maudlin and overwrought, but one could never doubt its sincerity.

Later, Marshall Grant told the story of the iconic bass thump of the Tennessee Two. None of the three original members of the band knew how to play the instrument, and used cellophane tape to mark its frets. The signature thumping noise comes not by design, but by his hands as they struggled to find the correct key for each early song.

John Mellencamp, playing a mournful solo acoustic guitar, followed next with a rendition of one of the group’s first hits, “Hey Porter.” Mellencamp is an unexpectedly good performer. Music fans who’ve heard only his cheesy pop hits of the 1980s would do well to listen to any of his performances from the Live Aid concerts. The man has soul, and it’s too bad he so often chooses to cover it up. This night he was at his best. Backlighted by the Ryman’s stage crew, his version of the song was soulful and right.

Many more tremendous performances followed. Highlights included Carlene Cash’s version of “Jackson” with Brooks and Dunn, looking eerily like her mother as she did the backwards onstage prance June perfected three decades before. Kid Rock channeled Johnny’s early rebellious spirit in a thoughtful version of “What is Truth,” before joining Hank Williams Jr. for a raucous “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gangs.” Kris Kristofferson sang his own “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down,” after breaking up onstage earlier talking about his friend. Celebrities from Bono to Whoopi Goldberg saluted Johnny via video.

At the most emotional moment in the evening for me, Al Gore, dressed head to toe in black, spoke a few words about having been Johnny’s congressman and then read “Man in Black” in its entirety. I worked on the campaign in 2000 and counted ballots in Florida. It was all I could do not to drive my fingernails into my palms in anguish as Gore recited the lines,

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believing that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believing that we all were on their side.

Johnny never spoke out against the war in Iraq, but his devotion to downtrodden soldiers like Ira Hayes is a matter of record. Gore’s speech didn’t make it into the broadcast version of the tribute, and it’s a sinful omission on the part of CMT’s corporate ownership. (Though, to their credit, they didn’t block out the “Greed, Oil, Pollution (GOP)” pin Rodney Crowell wore as he told a funny story about meeting Johnny for the first time and sang an original, “Do You Understand Your Man.”)

Emmylou Harris paid tribute with Dave Matthews on a somber broadcast version of “Long Black Veil,” and then the event wound up with the entire Cash family onstage singing “We’ll Meet Again.”

After the show, there was a reception at a downtown hotel featuring Earl Poole Ball and other members of Johnny’s performing band. Led by Chuck Mead, producer of several Cash tribute albums and lead singer of local heroes BR-549, the concert wound down into the wee hours of the morning as hundreds of fans feasted on buffalo wings and wine.

In November of 2003, the Cash Estate and producer Rick Rubin released Unearthed, a five-CD set of new material Johnny recorded in the last 10 years of his life. Outtakes of the four American albums released since 1993, the material is divided into thematic CDs with titles like My Mother’s Hymn Book and Trouble in Mind. The compilation weighs in at a hefty $75, but includes liner notes that cover various periods in Cash’s life and several lines about each of the 78 songs included. It opens with the potent “Long Black Veil,” and includes a jubilant version of Jean Richie’s phenomenal “L&N Don’t Stop Here Any More,” which is a marked contrast with the forlorn versions released by Michelle Shocked and June Carter. Cash covers songs as diverse as Neil Young’s “Pocahontas” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

I still can’t listen to Cash versions of “I’ll Fly Away,” from disc four, or “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” on disc two. His version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” with Joe Strummer is heartrending in its simplicity, the voices of two dead poets rising from the grave to remind us all of the hope that still lives, preserved here for eternity.

The Cash fan club has plans for another party sometime in 2004, and I know I’ll be there. The Man in Black may be gone, but let’s do our part to see that he’s never forgotten.


Photo by Mark Romanek