There were so many things to like about the third annual Johnny Cash Music Festival Saturday night at Arkansas State University's Convocation Center that it’s hard to know where to start.
Perhaps Jimmy Fortune, while describing George Jones’ “She Thinks I Still Care” — a country classic he capably covered — summed up not only that song but the evening as well when he said “that’s real country music right there.”
With Fortune, Vince Gill, Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, Tommy Cash and Joanne Cash Yates filling the bill, highlights abounded. Here are some of our favorites, in no particular order.
The steel guitar is sorely missing in much of what serves as country music these days, but it was showcased big-time during Gill’s part of the show by the absolutely awesome Paul Franklin. He and Gill have recently released a collaborative album, “Bakersfield,” which salutes Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and we would have left satisfied if all we’d heard all night was the way they teamed up on “Foolin’ Around,” “Together Again,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “The Bottle Let Me Down,” which Gill said just “might be the greatest drinking song ever written.”
Throughout the evening, the artists pined for more traditional country music while delivering it lovingly and expertly. One of the best lines was from Gill, as he proclaimed his love of cheatin’ songs. “These days,” Gill said, “if you go to a country music show and you don’t hear a cheatin’ song, you ought to get your money back.”
You have to think Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash were looking down and smiling as hosts Tommy and Joanne, the two remaining Cash siblings, belted out a feisty version of “Jackson.”
It was like stepping back in time to hear the Gatlins on hits like “Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer to You),” “I Just Wish You Were Someone I Love” and “Broken Lady.” Larry, acknowledging that teens usually don’t recognize some of the brothers’ biggest hits, said youngsters at their show are “like a goat looking at a new gate.”
Fortune, formerly with the Statler Brothers, delighted with “Flowers on the Wall,” “Elizabeth” and others, but simply soared on what he called “one of the best hymns ever written” — “How Great Thou Art.”
Sometime during the evening, it dawned on us that with Roy Acuff and George Jones gone, if anyone can assume the mantle as the current king of country music, a strong case could certainly be made for Gill. With a truckload of CMA and Grammy awards, the talented vocalist is known for his tenor on high lonesome ballads and is an accomplished and respected instrumentalist and songwriter.
He has an easy stage presence and a witty sense of humor; plus, he can handle the fast ones, the ballads and just about anything in between. Who else in the same set could deliver the emotional tribute to his late brother, “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” and the, uh, minor hit that’s probably an anthem for a few husbands around the country, "It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long." A run-through of hits like “One More Last Chance,” “When I Call Your Name” and “Look at Us” reminded audience members what a great career he’s had.
We’re always suckers for collaborations that you don’t get to see every day, so when all the performers blended their voices and closed out the show with rousing renditions of “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Amazing Grace,” we left happy.
Last year’s festival had its ups and downs, but this one was paced much better, there actually seemed to be a plan about who sang and when, and we’d have to say these performers — while they may not have been burning up the charts of late — certainly appealed to the older demographic that the festival draws. We’re already looking forward to the fourth one next year.