“We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash at ACL Live (4/20/2012)

photo:  Deborah Cannon

Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Sheryl Crow will be among the guest musicians who will take the stage Friday for ‘We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash’ at ACL Live. ‘We’re leaving it open to each person to find their own truth in these songs,’ says Don Was, who will serve as musical director for the show.

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by:   Peter Mongillo

Producer Don Was doesn’t hold back in describing Johnny Cash. “He was a human of mythological proportions.”

Cash had a mythological nickname, “The Man in Black.” It came from his song of the same name, in which he sang “I wear the black for the poor and beaten down.” It’s a dirge that epitomized his everyman persona — tough, tragic, inspiring, painfully human. But the name also calls to mind the supernatural — something ghostly, powerful and much more than human.

As fans celebrate the 80th birthday of Johnny Cash, who died in 2003, that contrast is a big part of the reason his impact endures just as vividly as it did while he lived. Similar to the man, his music was at once simple and transcendent, good and evil, comforting and haunting.

The two sides of Cash will no doubt be on display Friday, when a host of music icons, including Cash’s fellow Highwaymen Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson (the other Highwayman, Waylon Jennings, died in 2002), Lucinda Williams, John Hiatt, Ronnie Dunn, Iron and Wine, Sheryl Crow and Carolina Chocolate Drops will come together for “We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash” at ACL Live. Anchoring the night will be a backing band led by Was (also serving as the music director) with new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Ian McLagan, Buddy Miller, Kenny Aronoff and Greg Leisz.

Although a set list for the show hasn’t been announced, it’s a safe bet that it will include a good chunk of Cash’s most popular songs, many of which have been reinterpreted in countless ways over the years. Two that come to mind are Social Distortion’s punk “Ring of Fire” and the Grateful Dead’s live staple “Big River,” which would routinely stretch out to twice the length of Cash’s original version.

“We won’t be imitating the Johnny Cash records,” says Was, who worked with Cash, Nelson and Kristofferson to produce the Highwaymen’s 1995 album, “The Road Goes On Forever.” “You’re never going to beat Johnny Cash at his own game musically. There’s really no point in trying to do karaoke facsimiles of what he did, and we’re leaving it open to each person to find their own truth in these songs.”

Although Cash penned many of his own songs, he also didn’t shy away from those written by others, especially in his later years, when he successfully reinvented himself with his series of “American Recordings,” which included several covers alongside different versions of his originals. His 2002 recording and video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” remains one of the more poignant musical moments of the past decade.

Was says that Cash’s ability to get to the heart of a song, regardless of style or genre, helps explain his widespread appeal.

“He picked soulful songs, always,” Was says. “Categories are great for organizing record stores, but people don’t think in terms of categories. There are human truths that transcend categories, and he didn’t do any songs that didn’t have a core truth to them, and he was completely believable because he was telling the truth. And if he didn’t write it, it was as if he wrote it.”

Cash’s son John Carter Cash, who worked with Was and producer Keith Wortman to organize the show, agrees.

“My dad had a way — he didn’t adhere to one thing,” he says. “You couldn’t define him as necessarily a country musician. You’re just liable to find a collection of Johnny Cash records in a punk band’s collection as much of country musician’s collection.”

The show is part of a larger celebration of Johnny Cash’s life, including the construction of a museum at his boyhood home in Dyess, Ark. It will be recorded for future DVD and CD release by Sony’s Legacy Recordings, which is also releasing a series of “bootleg” Johnny Cash recordings, beginning with a 51-track collection of gospel tracks. A percentage of the proceeds from Friday’s show will go to Charley’s Fund, which works to find a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

John Carter Cash, who recently published “House of Cash,” a personal look at his father’s life, says his father would have approved. “I know that my father would be very excited about it,” he says. “There are a lot of people on the bill that are dear friends who worked with him through his life. It’s like coming back full circle.”

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