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Back in black
TNT's tribute to Johnny Cash was a reverent -- and occasionally rocking -- affair

[ 10:45 a.m. PDT- 04/19/99 ]

Reverence hung thick over TNT's "All-Star Tribute to Johnny Cash," televised Sunday night, and to an extent, that's how it should have been. Cash, 67, an outlaw country performer before there was even a term (or an acknowledged need) for it, and a songwriter whose material has been marked by depth and passion over a span of more than 40 years, suffers from a neurological condition known as Shy-Drager syndrome. He has been unable to perform for almost two years, making his appearance at the end of the tribute particularly noteworthy. The illuminati gathered to honor him -- including Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Chris Isaak, Lyle Lovett and Trisha Yearwood, as well as (via videotape) Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and U2 -- couldn't help looking thrilled to be there.

Isaak poured his considerable personal charm into "Get Rhythm"; Lovett ambled amiably through "Tennessee Flat Top Box." Harris teamed up with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Sheryl Crow (on accordion) for a lovely reading of "Flesh and Blood." Most moving of all was June Carter Cash's version of a song she co-wrote with her husband, "Ring of Fire." It was written, she said, at a scary time, when she'd just fallen in love with Cash. "This was in the early years -- and he was kind of scary at that time," she explained, half deadpan and half dead-on.

Nearly everyone valiantly rose to the occasion. Even the anemic-sounding Sheryl Crow, barely able to find her footing when paired with Willie Nelson for the opening medley of "Jackson" and "Orange Blossom Special," at least looked game. (Nelson is formidable company to begin with; his idiosyncratic, genius phrasing is enough to throw far greater singers than Crow.)

But as pleasant and occasionally touching as it all was, somebody had to run off with the evening. It sure wasn't Springsteen, who (via videotape from Italy, where he's on tour) somnambulated through a solo acoustic "Give My Love to Rose." Only two performers seemed aware that interpreting a rebel's music note for precious note isn't the only way to pay tribute to it. Wyclef Jean's astonishing "Delia's Gone" -- about a man who, at first seemingly without remorse, shoots his woman dead -- underscored the link between Cash's brand of country and gangsta rap (and put a fillip on the idea that apparent coldness doesn't always denote heartlessness). U2 sent along a videotaped version of "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," a reggae reading of the song that breathed a different kind of life into it.

Yet when Cash himself took the stage at the end of the show for two numbers -- looking puffy and worn, but with the devil unmistakable, still, in his eyes -- he showed them all up. When he got to the line "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," only one lone soul in the audience cheered. That the rest of the crowd didn't is a little like refusing to sing along with a gospel choir in a Baptist church, but it's clear that the assembled meant well. The majority of them had the decency to wear black.
-- Stephanie Zacharek

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