Family and friends in black

Special to The Times

References to Johnny Cash's monochrome nickname "The Man in Black" were plentiful during Monday's star-filled musical tribute to the late American music legend here. But Cash's family, friends and colleagues went to great lengths to ensure that the late musician was honored in all his colorful, complex, often contradictory glory.

Fittingly, performers and speakers included an ex-vice president and several former drug addicts, a renowned preacher and a foul-mouthed rap-rocker, a young gospel choir and a grizzled quartet of country music hell-raisers. They performed songs that embraced country, rock, folk, blues and gospel -- all the musical hues that went into Cash's distinctive sound.

Friend Kris Kristofferson called him "a dark, dangerous force." Brother Tommy Cash said he was "in many ways the greatest man I ever knew." Daughter Rosanne Cash said her father embraced "addiction and enlightenment" and "God and the void" in equal measures.

"The Johnny Cash Memorial Tribute: A Celebration of Friends and Family" took place at the Ryman Auditorium, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry where Cash introduced himself to June Carter, his future wife, in 1956, and where he hosted his ABC network variety show from 1969 to 1971. The tribute lasted more than four hours, prolonged by occasional interruptions to oblige the taping of a two-hour television special scheduled to air Saturday at 8 p.m. on the Country Music Television cable channel.

The tone remained reverent and warm throughout. Lengthy reminiscences provoked loud laughter and quiet tears, especially from an extended Cash-Carter clan still grieving the back-to-back deaths of June Carter Cash on May 15, Johnny Cash on Sept. 12, and Carter's daughter and Cash's stepdaughter Rosie Nix Adams on Oct. 24. "This is truly a tribute," said singer Carlene Carter, the daughter of June and Country Music Hall of Fame member Carl Smith. "It's a way for us to celebrate the music they brought to the world."

Guests included country veterans Willie Nelson, George Jones, Kristofferson and Hank Williams Jr., who performed separately and together in a reconstituted version of the Highwaymen, the group that originally consisted of Cash, Nelson, Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.

Other performers included two ex-sons-in-law, Rodney Crowell and Marty Stuart, as well as daughter-in-law Laura Cash (wife of John Carter Cash) and son-in-law Jimmy Tittle (husband of Kathy Cash).

The performers included several rockers, including Kid Rock, John Mellencamp and, on tape, Dave Matthews, all singing songs written or made famous by Cash. Ray Charles, U2's Bono, Nine Inch Nail's Trent Reznor, Dan Rather, the Rev. Billy Graham and Whoopi Goldberg sent taped tributes.

Cash's music attracted such a cross-cultural audience because of its integrity and honesty, said actor Tim Robbins, who hosted the event. His fans encompassed rural country folk, urban rappers, angry punk rockers and devout Christians, Robbins explained, because "his music was able to unite us in a common truth."

Former Vice President Al Gore, who once interviewed Cash while working as a cub reporter at a Nashville newspaper, recalled how the singer "cared deeply for those who didn't have a lot of people who cared for them."

While guests repeatedly spoke of his demons, his drug habits and his rebellion, they also painted a portrait of a loving father and generous friend.

"The integrity he gave to his art is the same integrity that informed him as a parent," Rosanne Cash said. "He taught me what it meant to be a good parent: trust, respect and a wide-open mind."

Graham spoke of how often Cash performed at Graham's religious crusades and of the long discussions they had about the message of Christ.

"John and June are in heaven," said the 85-year-old Graham, who has been battling Parkinson's disease. "I look forward to seeing them relatively soon."

Among the evening's many memorable performances were a mournful version of "Hurt" by Sheryl Crow, a steel-belted "Folsom Prison Blues" from Steve Earle, an evocative "Sunday Morning Coming Down" by its writer, Kristofferson, a ferocious "Rock Island Line" by Stuart, and a rousing duet of "Jackson" by Carlene Carter and Ronnie Dunn of country duo Brooks & Dunn.

Following an opening spiritual by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Rosanne Cash's slow, aching take on her father's poignant song of lost love "I Still Miss Someone" was transformed to connect with the memories of her father and stepmother. Jones' countrified take on "Give My Love to Rose" brought tears from family members still mourning the recent passing of Adams, who died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning less than three weeks ago.

The evening ended with a touching collection of family photos flashed across a large screen, depicting Johnny and June in different stages of life with various children and grandchildren.

When it ended, Robbins brought more than 25 family members, adults and children, many still wiping tears after seeing the photographs, onstage to link arms before the crowd of 2,800.

After an extended standing ovation, John Carter Cash, the 32-year-old son of John and June, led the family in a version of "We'll Meet Again," the World War II-era love song that Cash turned into a poignantly lighthearted goodbye as the final song on his 2002 album, "American IV: The Man Comes Around." Other performers walked out to join them as Carter Cash encouraged the crowd to join in.

Earlier in the evening, Rosanne Cash said her father used to tell his children, "Every day held a choice to be made. You can choose love or hate." His daughter, fighting tears, said, "Daddy, tonight we choose love." Then she spoke of his enduring legacy, adding that even now, "He keeps pointing us in the direction of our best selves."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World