Johnny Cash Saturday, July 29, at Playfair Race Course
A rather tranquil crowd Saturday at Playfair Race Course suddenly came alive when a shadowy figure, the Man in Black a living piece of American history emerged from the back of the stage. And in an ever so cool fashion, Johnny Cash, with a smile lifting his puffy cheeks, greeted the crowd, glanced at his band members and blazed into his performance.
Onstage, the towering singer seemed so familiar, like an old friend. Yet he had this air about him that made him equally mysterious. Further, his robust voice, still magnificent and powerful, soothed as it did haunt.
But it’s those qualities, as well as his fashion sense, that earned the ageless singer his Man in Black moniker.
For nearly two hours, Cash, with the audience riding shotgun, ventured down many roads of his colorful 63-year past.
There were wide-open country roads leading to salvation, such as “Oh Bury Me Not.” There were dark, bumpy passages, like “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” There were roads that led to crossroads, such as “Guess Things Happen That Way.” Then, there were the roads of regret, as in “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Cash dug up countless goose-bump-generating nuggets during the sunny, mild afternoon. They included “Ring of Fire,” “Get Rhythm,” “Tennessee Stud” and “I Walk The Line.”
What was so surprising about the concert was Cash’s voice. Most singers’ voices dull as they get older. Like fine wine, pardon the cliche, Cash’s vocals grow better with age.
The song “Way Down in the Hole” served as testimony as Cash’s craggy vocals dug lower than the shovel he was singing about.
And his delivery was so fluid it seemed that the lyrics just danced off the tip of his tongue.
He was that good.
A third of the way into the performance, Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, who played guitar in the band, sang a couple of his own songs while his father took a much deserved break.
Though the younger Cash sang his heart out, it wasn’t Johnny. Perhaps the best look we got at the budding singer/songwriter was when, deep in the show, he performed a duet, “Death and Hell,” with his father. It’s a song the two wrote for the latest Highwaymen album, “The Road Goes on Forever.”
Also during the concert, Cash was joined onstage by his wife, June Carter Cash. Together, they sang spirited renditions of “Jackson” and “If I Were a Carpenter.”
Cash left his wife at the helm for a few songs, and she resurrected some of the old Carter Family classics. Her aging voice ably weathered the material.
Old Johnny should be commended on the amount of enthusiasm he poured into his songs. Most of the material performed has been a part of his repertoire for decades. That’s a long time to sing a song like “A Boy Name Sue,” a tune, Cash has confessed in interviews, he doesn’t like.
Yet, with that crooked smile he’s known for, he belted the song out as if it were 1969, the year he first sang it.
After all these years, one might expect Cash to turn on the automatic pilot and just cruise through his old songs without much feeling. But, like a true showman, he didn’t.
The only disappointing thing about the concert was that Cash only featured three songs from his latest artistic success, “American Recordings.”
Perhaps in a different setting, Cash might have highlighted his most recent masterpiece a little more. It was clear that this was a “family show” and much of the material on “American Recordings” is brooding and dark.
Another thing made evident by Cash’s performance and his recent comeback is that the singer has many prosperous years ahead, more roads left to travel.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.