Friday night’s fourth annual Johnny Cash Music Festival at Arkansas Statue University’s Convocation Center in Jonesboro, staged the night before the grand opening of the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home restoration, opened with a video of the home in the nearby Depression Era town of Dyess, then essentially became a survey of country music from the late 1950s to today.
Hosted by Southern Gospel superstar Mark Lowry, the festival, which was created to raise money to fund the Cash Home restoration, fronted three Country Music Hall of Famers—Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare and Reba McEntire.
Lynn opened--and turned back the clock. Now 82 and with a recording career going back to “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” her first composition and 1960 single, she belied her age with a note-perfect performance of her historic hits including that and “Blue Kentucky Girl,” "Don't Come Home A' Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)," “Fist City,” “I Wanna Be Free,” “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” “You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” "They Don't Make 'em Like My Daddy" and "When the Tingle Becomes a Chill"—the final “chill” sung with a shiver.
“It’s the first time I worked with anyone in a long, long time,” said Lynn, who clearly enjoyed sharing the bill with her fellow headliners. “They told me to get on stage and get off but I may stay all night.”
There seemed to be no physical reason why she couldn’t have, but she ended anyway with “She's Got You,” her 1977 tribute hit to her friend and its originator Patsy Cline, and her signature hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which brought the sold-out college athletic arena to a frenzy.
Bare was up next.
“I love Johnny Cash and I’m proud to be part of the show,” he said, and noted that he was wearing black “to honor the Man in Black,” even though “I usually work nekkid.”
Early on Bare, backed by four musicians and the age appropriate Nashville Now vocal quartet, sang his favorite Cash song, “I Still Miss Someone”—a good choice.
Now 79, he, too, went back in time in performing such timeless career hits as “Detroit City,” “500 Miles Away from Home,” “Miller’s Cave,” “Four Strong Winds,” “Streets of Baltimore,” “(Margie's At) The Lincoln Park Inn,” “How I Got to Memphis” and “Come Sundown”—many featuring Bare’s mid-song recitations, all among the most melancholic country songs ever.
But he also sang the lighthearted gospel song “Dropkick Me Jesus” (said to be Bill Clinton’s favorite country song), his ironic Shel Silverstein-penned hit “The Winner” and another upbeat Silverstein hit, “Marie Laveau” (he also delighted with Silverstein’s “Old Dogs” and “Still Gonna Die,” which he sang on the 1998 album Old Dogs along with Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis and Jerry Reed).
Bare now has a bit of a gravelly Cash baritone himself, and commented that at his age, you get frogs in your throat. He tore down the house at the end of his set when he brought out Lynn to join him on his 1976 hit “God Bless America Again,” which Lynn also hit with that year in her duet version with Conway Twitty.
Reba McEntire, the relative baby of the bunch, more than held her own with her elders. She said that it was “a dream come true” to share the stage with Lynn for the first time, then sang her first No. 1 country hit, “Can't Even Get the Blues,” which was published by Lynn’s publishing company and for which Lynn had congratulated McEntire with a necklace.
McEntire then took the audience on a chronological trip through her own seemingly endless hit catalog. “One Promise Too Late,” “How Blue,” “Whoever’s in New England,” “Little Rock,” “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” “Walk On,” “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” “Turn On the Radio”--all were performed pretty much in order and amplified by the stories behind them.
Most enlightening were “Somebody Should Leave,” her 1985 No. 1 hit, which the great Harlan Howard gave her after she nervously passed on his first two offerings; “Why Not Tonight,” from her first movie, Tremors (1990); "Because of You," the hit by her daughter-in-law Kelly Clarkson, which McEntire and Clarkson later recorded for a duet hit; and “I’m a Survivor,” the theme song from her 2001 sitcom Reba.
McEntire’s power duet with her multi-instrumentalist Jenifer Wrinkle left no one missing the spectacular chart-topping version she did in 1993 with Linda Davis, and she left them screaming with the concert-closing encore “Fancy,” prior to which she changed into a hot red outfit.
And as if the superstar bill needed anything else, it had Lowry as host. An ecumenical Christian comedian, Lowry had everyone rolling on the floor laughing at both him and themselves, even the Church of Christ members in the audience, who eschew musical instruments.
“You’re gonna get to hear a piano tonight!” guaranteed Lowry, who hilariously recounted the debilitating 2006 motorcycle accident that left him wheelchair-bound for a year, then proclaimed himself glad to be a Baptist “because Pentecostals would go to hell for what I said!”
But Lowry, of course, is also a great singer-songwriter, and he primed the crowd for Reba when he sang his own classic “Mary Did You Know?,” easily earning his own standing ovation.
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