“Johnny Cash crossed all boundaries,” said Joaquin Phoenix, appropriately dressed in black, from the stage of Los Angeles’ Pantages Theater for the taping of I Walk the Line: A Night for Johnny Cash. The TV special, to air November 16th on CBS, is a combination musical tribute to the late country legend and promotional vehicle for I Walk the Line, the new feature film starring Phoenix as Cash. Per the actor’s words, Cash’s ability to cross musical lines brought out a diverse group of performers, from Kid Rock and the Foo Fighters to Martina McBride and Montgomery Gentry.
Reese Witherspoon, who stars as Cash’s late wife June Carter Cash in the film, served as Phoenix’s co-host for the show, which is liberally interspersed with clips from the film that elicited applause from the packed house. Though the two hosts largely stuck to a script, Witherspoon, who was raised in Nashville, provided a rare spontaneous moment during her introduction of bluegrass star Alison Krauss. “I’m going to try not to faint,” the actress said.
Among the performance highlights was Jerry Lee Lewis and Kid Rock teaming for “I Walk the Line.” Displaying his explosive finger work on his fellow Sun Records alumnus’ signature hit, Lewis was feted with a thunderous standing ovation when he rose from the piano. Norah Jones, who did an elegant reading of “Home of the Blues,” brought out “one of Johnny’s fellow Highwaymen” Kris Kristofferson, who was also dressed in black, and the two traded vocals on “Guess Things Happen That Way.”
Kristofferson had teamed with the Foo Fighters for a Monday night taping of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” that aired in the theater on Tuesday. (U2, Coldplay and Sheryl Crow are among the other artists pre-recording performances). As an introduction to the Cash hit he penned, Kristofferson recalled being a janitor at Columbia Records and “pitching Johnny on every song I had for a year and a half.”
Other inspired pairings included Shooter Jennings, who plays his father Waylon in the movie, performing “Jackson” with his mother, Jessi Colter, and Krauss joining Dwight Yoakam for the Johnny and June live staple “If I Were a Carpenter.”
The night ended with Lewis, who was honored with a chant of “Jerry” as he retook his place at the piano, where he lead the night’s performers — and the crowd — through “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”