It was a familiar voice with a familiar greeting to open the Third Annual Johnny Cash Music Festival Saturday night at the Arkansas State University Convocation Center in Jonesboro, starring Vince Gill, Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers and Jimmy Fortune.
“Hello, everybody. I’m Tommy Cash.”
Cash, of course, was Johnny Cash’s younger brother, the baby in a brood of seven siblings. He and sister Joanne Cash Yates, the next youngest, are the Cash family’s only survivors.
“I knew him like a brother,” Cash joked, after noting that the little house he and Johnny grew up in, now called the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home and being restored by funds raised from the Cash Music Festivals, is only 35 miles away.
With backing by the Gatlin Brothers Band, Cash then sang his brother’s classic “Ring Of Fire,” Rudy Gatlin terrific on background vocals. He then brought out sister Joanne, who, too, sounded much like her older brother on his “I Still Miss Someone”—its writer, cousin Roy Cash, taking a bow from the audience.
“Mama would be real proud of us, wouldn’t she, Tommy?” Joanne asked. After brief reminiscing about the home (“We all took a bath Saturday night—whether we needed to or not!”) the pair performed “Jackson,” Joanne now turning in a fine approximation of June Carter Cash’s part.
Larry Gatlin was introduced and led his own brothers in a majestic reading of “Night Time Magic,” the Gatlins’ big voice and sound fully intact. So were the Brothers’ harmonies: “I Don’t Wanna Cry” was especially gorgeous here.
Gatlin, of course, brought deep connections to the Cash family to the show. He performed several songs he wrote that Johnny Cash recorded, including Gatlin’s country hit “Bitter They Are Harder They Fall”; inspirational song “The Good Earth,” on which Joanne joined; and “Help Me,” which Gatlin sang at June Carter Cash’s funeral at her request, then reprised it four month’s later at Cash’s.
“I carried my big friend Johnny Cash to his final earthly resting place,” Gatlin related, "and then said to his casket, 'We’ll sing and play ‘Help Me’ at every show for the rest of our lives.”
Gatlin also did a verse of his first hit “Sweet Becky Walker” (1973) in response to an audience request, and before ending with his 1979 chart-topper “All The Gold In California,” delivered his 2009 single “Johnny Cash Is Dead (And His House Burned Down),” which brilliantly acknowledged the emergence of a new generation of country artists.
Calling himself “what’s left of the Statler Brothers after taxes,” Jimmy Fortune followed. Fortune, who replaced late Statler Lew DeWitt in the group in 1982, offered the quartet's DeWitt-penned 1965 pop crossover hit “Flowers On The Wall” in tribute.
He also performed the huge Statler hits he wrote: “Elizabeth,” “Too Much On My Heart,” “My Only Love,” and “More Than A Name On A Wall.”
As the Statlers had been discovered by Johnny Cash, he noted that “they started with Cash and ended up with a Fortune!” Now with exceptional backup from former Patty Loveless fiddler/backup singer Sydney Perry and guitarist/steel guitarist Rick Anderson, he more than held his own while performing in front of a backdrop of the much-restored Cash Home.
“It looks a lot like my own,” Fortune observed. Noting that he saw Cash and June Carter Cash sing “The Far Side Banks Of Jordan” on The Statler Brothers Show, which ran on TNN in the 1990s, he closed with it and the hymn “How Great Thou Art,” as “never a night went by” with the Statler Brothers that they didn’t perform it.
Headliner Gill likewise had deep Cash Family roots, in his case, as a guitarist for Rosanne Cash early in his career.
“We did a couple TV shows with John and June and I was terrified,” he told the audience after taking the stage with a big band, including drummer Billy Thomas, background vocalist/percussionist Dawn Sears, and steel guitarist Paul Franklin—all of whom also work alongside Gill in the acclaimed Nashville Western swing band the Time Jumpers.
Franklin is also Gill’s duet partner on their new album Bakersfield, and a good portion of the set was devoted to the songs of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard that that album highlights.
Owens’ “Foolin’ Around” offered Franklin the perfect steel showcase, while Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down” (and Gill’s own 1991 hit “Pocket Full Of Gold”) allowed Sears to show off one of the best voices in the business.
“You can’t find more than two or three records that hold up as good as this one,” Gill said, intro-ing Owen’s “Together Again,” then topping it with Hagg’s patriotic “The Fightin’ Side Of Me.”
Gill related that at a VIP meet-and-greet prior to the show, he was asked of the whereabouts of wife Amy Grant (she wasn’t there). Revealing that he’d written his 1994 hit “Whenever You Come Around”—with his pianist/high harmony singer Pete Wasner—about her, he dedicated it in this concert to “all those guys who have a thing for my wife.”
Turning serious, Gill thanked the crowd for providing “a whole lot of kids with the opportunity to get an education,” as proceeds from the concert, in addition to continuing funding for the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home, goes to a scholarship fund for helping disadvantaged children from Cash’s home area.
Gill closed with his signature hits “Go Rest High on That Mountain" and “Liza Jane,” and everyone returned to the stage to join Tommy Cash in his brother’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” and then Joanne Cash Yates on “Amazing Grace,” both marked by ensemble vocals that could only be described as amazing.
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