Music News


Don't blame Johnny Cash for his unusual silence in the Eighties. For ten years, the outspoken Cash searched for a place between the growing neo-country Nashville and the wholesale, creased-denim twang crowd of Music Row. His attempts at balance were met with lukewarm reviews. Finally, in 1988, heart surgery looked like it might segue into a sudden, possibly permanent end to his certifiably legendary career.

But when a rested and relaxed Cash took to Celebrity Theatre's revolving stage January 25, it was apparent that rumors of an early exit were unfounded: The Man in Black was back.

Rescuing son John Carter from a miserable five-song opening set--the poor boy's voice coach should be looking for work--Cash rumbled through no fewer than twenty tunes before intermission.

The gathering itself was a show-within-a-show mix that featured several hundred golf carts' worth of Sun City adventurers, a raucous regiment of beleathered skinheads, two or three children and the most spectacular exhibition of bouffant hairdos since Jacqueline Bouvier's bridal shower. Alas, it was a mix that never quite clicked. Near death from John Carter's vocalistic "Scud" attack, it wasn't until Cash launched into his star-spangled 1970 retort to Vietnam War protesters, "Ragged Old Flag," that the audience proved to be among the living.

Perhaps tentative from the limp reception to his opening "Ring of Fire" and "Folsom Prison Blues"--both top-form renderings, by the way--Cash introduced his patriotic poem-song as "corny." His thundering interpretation, however, moved the crowd to the evening's sole standing ovation and clearly stunned Cash. While the audience subsequently settled back into a sort of leisure-suited funk, this jolt carried Cash through the show's duration.

With a treasury of more than 130 hit songs from which to choose, Cash selected classic representations from the span of his 35-year career, including "Sunday Morning Coming Down"; "Get Rhythm," which Cash said he conceived at a Memphis shoeshine stand in 1956; "How High's the Water?"; and "Ira Hayes," the stirring elegy to the briefly celebrated, Arizona-born Pima soldier who helped raise the American flag on Iwo Jima. Although Cash and company were fresh from a two-month layoff where they hadn't lifted so much as a banjo pick, there wasn't a trace of rust evident anywhere.

Wife June Carter Cash's pre- intermission entrance roiled the waters. If her flowing blue, floor-length silk dress wasn't splashy enough, the massive silver belt that cinched it--encrusted with an awesome excess of walnut-sized gem-thangs--would be the envy of any champion prizefighter.

While Johnny is the brooding, somberly clad social commentator, June is the crazy aunt from out of town, the ever-effervescent belle of the wedding reception.

Underscoring this wonderful personality contrast is the radical difference in vocal style. Johnny's seismic bass and June's crackling Carter Family-manner produced memorable renditions of "Jackson," "If I Were a Carpenter," and the classic "John Henry," during which June shucked her heels, hiked up her gown and clogged mountain-style.

After the break, the Carter Sisters opened with a series of Carter Family standards that included "Keep on the Sunny Side." Bereft of Mother Maybelle's plaintive voice and autoharp, it seemed incomplete, as did "Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes." Sister Anita, however, did her durnedest to steal the show (and tweak the sedentary masses) with an astounding treatment of Marty Robbins' difficult, bluesy "Don't Worry."

On the good-news side of things is Johnny Cash's bold leap into the new decade. Last year's album Boom Chicka Boom announced his return to the Tennessee Two half-time rhythms for which the album is named and Cash has long been revered.

In this concert, Cash introduced two new tunes, "The Greatest Cowboy of Them All" and the doomsday prophesy "Goin' by the Book," both from his soon-to-be-released disc Mystery of Life. Well-performed in concert, their renderings in wax are magnificent. Other highlights from that record include the Cash classics "Hey Porter" and "Wanted Man," a tune co-written by Cash and Bob Dylan and arranged by Marty "Hillbilly Rock" Stuart. The album's duet, "I'll Go Somewhere and Sing My Songs Again," a number Cash shares with its author, Tom T. Hall, might easily be Cash's anthem for the Nineties. In fact, there is nary a clunker on Mystery of Life, far and away his best work in years, perhaps since "Folsom Prison Blues."

The balance of the show was studded with precious jewels like "Peace in the Valley," "Daddy Sang Bass," and the signature "I Walk the Line." The band continued fiddling around when Cash, with a wink and a promise, left. They were clearly surprised when the elderly audience quietly began filing out after a perfunctory round of polite applause.

"What's this?" a splendiferously outfitted cowboy nearby asked. "There's always an encore."

"Aw, it's a typical apathetic Phoenix audience," another disappointed Cash fan responded. "They should all go home and die."

It was difficult to discern that they already hadn't.

While Johnny is the brooding, somberly clad social commentator, June is the crazy aunt from out of town, the belle of the wedding reception.

When a rested and relaxed Cash took to Celebrity's revolving stage, it was apparent that the rumors were unfounded: The Man in Black was back.

Although fresh from a two-month layoff where Cash and company hadn't lifted so much as a banjo pick, not a trace of rust was evident.

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Larry Crowley