During the final stretch of a star-studded tribute to Johnny Cash on Friday night in Austin, Sheryl Crow turned to stagemate Willie Nelson and told the country music icon, “I would have your baby . . . if you weren’t already married. And if I didn’t know your wife.” Instead of blushing or sharing an uncomfortable moment in front of a packed Austin City Limits Live audience, the two stars stepped into “If I Were A Carpenter,” one of a string of duets recorded by Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, in which the couple expressed their deep love for one another.
Nelson, Crow and a guest list that would rival some award shows gathered to celebrate the late Man in Black for We Walk the Line: a Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash, a fundraiser to fight Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Kris Kristofferson, Lucinda Williams, Amy Lee, Shelby Lynne, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Iron and Wine, Jamey Johnson, Rhett Miller, Brandi Carlile, Shooter Jennings and more took turns on stage running through Cash’s songbook of country classics. With a backing band that included Don Was, Buddy Miller and new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Ian McLagan, the performers put their own touches on Cash’s hits without reinventing them. Lynne’s “Why Me Lord” was full of dynamite soul, the Carolina Chocolate Drops added their gritty bluegrass sound to “Jackson” and Carlile’s take on “Folsom Prison Blues” was feisty at almost double-time speed.
“The Carolina Chocolate Drops just came out of left field for me, and I was so impressed with what they did on ‘Jackson,'” country star Ronnie Dunn of Brooks and Dunn said at the close of a night that saw him perform “Ring Of Fire” with the aid of two mariachi trumpet players. “They told me to do my song just like Johnny did and not get crazy with it, but how in the world am I going to use my tenor voice to do what he did with that amazing baritone we all know? I figured the horns would help me cover up whatever shortcomings I have.”
Guests paired up throughout the evening much like Nelson and Crow, with Train’s Pat Monohan and Lynne lobbing verses at each other on “It Ain’t Me Babe,” Kristofferson joining Johnson for “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” and those two returning with Nelson and Jennings for “The Highwayman.” The night ended with the entire roster – more than two dozen musicians – crowding onto the stage for a celebratory rendition of “I Walk The Line.” It was a scene so loaded with talent that an A-list artist like Crow was left singing backup vocals off-mike and clapping while her peers led the crowd in a sing-along.
Asked afterward about the significance of the night, Miller – whose band the Old 97’s are named after Cash’s “Wreck of the Old ’97,” – talked of the chance to pay honor to Cash by bringing a roots-punk punch to the famous song. “He’s a country legend, but to me Johnny Cash was and will always be the ultimate punk rocker. I figured, what better way to honor that spirit than by really going for it on one of the most rocking songs I’ve ever known?”