Early word on this Saturday's Johnny Cash tribute. At the taping of the CMT special, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson reunited while Tim Robbins and Al Gore avoided politics

By Chris Willman
Updated November 11, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Hank Williams Jr, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and George Jones: Mark Humphrey/AP

It was officially billed as the Johnny Cash Memorial Tribute, but maybe they should have called it ”Black Like Him.” Any number of performers and presenters at Monday night’s salute in Nashville dressed in the late singer’s favorite non-color from head to toe, starting with host Tim Robbins and guest speaker Al Gore. But Sheryl Crow’s little black dress provided a tipoff that the evening wouldn’t be too funereal.

”There’s not a lot of somber hearts in there,” son John Carter Cash promised before the taping at the Ryman Auditorium. ”There’s a lot of joy.” When home viewers see a two-hour edit of the four-hour concert on CMT this Saturday (8 p.m. EST), the joyful noise will encompass a wide range of styles and covers: Crow’s beautiful take on ”Hurt,” the Nine Inch Nails song that became the unlikely final classic in the Cash canon; a raucous duet between Brooks & Dunn and Carlene Carter (daughter of June Carter and Johnny’s stepdaughter) on ”Jackson,” her folks’ most famous vocal pairing; and a semi-reunion of the Highwaymen, with originals Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson joined by George Jones and Hank Williams Jr. (the latter two ringers for Johnny and Waylon in the superstar quartet).

Kid Rock felt compelled to admit he was an odd man out: ”No reason to get up here and lie,” he told the crowd before his first number. ”Of everybody up here, I probably knew Johnny the least.” Otherwise, the family largely limited the list of performers to friends of Cash (Travis Tritt did an elegiac ”I Walk the Line”) or acquaintances with an appropriate connection to the material (like ex-con Steve Earle doing ”Folsom Prison Blues”). Roseanne Cash provided the most moving moments, first with a tender rendition of ”I Still Miss Someone” that made the song sound like it’d been written as a eulogy, then a spirited reprise of ”Tennessee Flat Top Box,” which she and her dad both made into decades-spanning hits.

If not for his friendship with Cash, Robbins might have seemed a curious choice as host: CMT probably couldn’t have picked another actor whose presence could equally tick off the mostly conservative country audience. But Robbins’ only allusions to politics were about Cash’s Vietnam war-era sentiments, with an emphasis on support for the armed forces, ”separate and apart from how we feel about the people who put them in that position.” If Robbins was a slightly inflammatory choice for some country fans, Cash would have approved of that; as Robbins reminded everyone, Cash was the guy who earned the ire of the Grand Ole Opry by kicking out the footlights on that very stage.

Gore, Cash’s former congressman and a family friend since he was a boy, was in apolitical mode, to the point that he couldn’t choose sides when asked backstage for his favorite Cash song, finally teetering between ”September When It Comes,” a recent duet that Rosanne wrote for herself and her father (”it was so prophetic”) and ”I Walk the Line” (”I first met him right after that song came out”). His appearance here, and at the funeral last month, had a bit of element of payback to it. ”He campaigned all over the United States for me,” Gore said. ”In 1988 when I ran for president for the first time, I had to get out of the race, and I had a big debt. He and Tommy Lee Jones did an event here and paid off the whole debt in one night.” Leave it to the Man in Black to help put somebody back in the black.