Cash on the Barrelhead

Johnny Cash came to town the other night and killed a myth, perhaps just to watch it die.

Johnny Cash is not seven feet tall. His music (not to mention the Man in Black image) always has made him seem so imposing, the way he takes simple rhythms and melodies played with basic instrumentation and adds a voice that never tries too hard, a nonchalant voice, to come up with songs that somehow tower above their spare-parts arrangements. But Cash himself is not bigger than life, his skin is not craggy and seared, his presence in a room is not especially impressive. It turns out that Cash is flesh and blood after all.

He's also, like his music, gracious. In his 30-song concert/family revue at the Gusman Center on Sunday, and throughout his 40-year career, Cash has driven a train of kindness and charm and compassion along the same track as his bleak (realistic) world-view, flattening the pennies of expectation along the way.

During the Gusman show, the 62-year-old legend joked about his hearing aid being wet, repeated a joke he had told a guy then informed the audience that "he didn't laugh either," and said he wanted to title his new album (American Recordings) "Scary" because it consists only of him and his guitar. He said three dogs are depicted on the cover of the new album -- the photo actually features two canines and Cash. And between the self-effacing patter, he sang about Vietnam and getting stoned and killing women and doing time. And he took requests.

Apart from maybe two mushed lines (that damn hearing aid), Cash flawlessly answered the big question: Is he folk or is he country? American Recordings is a pure folk album, and much of his earlier work also fits that peg. But when he opened the show with "Folsom Prison Blues," his backing group, the Tennessee Three, joined by a special-guest guitarist, let it be known that country was the call, with pinpoint electric guitar lines ringing above the standup bass, drums, and acoustic guitar shuffle rhythms. Later in the evening, Cash played solo, and there was nothing but what's left of his Arkansas twang to qualify it as country.

The answer: Cash is both folk and country. Of course. And he's rockabilly, too.

After his second song -- another vintage tune, the music-conquers-melancholy jaunt "Get Rhythm," which he wrote for Elvis Presley in 1956 A Cash doffed the black coat, spoke his trademark line ("Hello, I'm Johnny Cash") in an almost shy tone, then spread his wings for the expansive Kris Kristofferson-penned "Sunday Morning Coming Down."

A not-quite-packed Gusman (go figure how Cash doesn't sell out a 1700-seat venue) began to settle down, but the band broke into "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky," with Cash tagging a little scream thing to the end of a verse, moving everyone back to the edge of their seats.

The band left him alone for the first time in the show, and Cash introduced "Drive On" -- the best track on the new album -- as "my Vietnam song," then brought the boys back out for "Ring of Fire" (written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore). Someone in the crowd screamed "25 Minutes." The first thought, based on old impressions, on the myth, was that Cash would stride into the seats and bitch-slap the rude individual. Instead, he smirked, glanced aside, and launched into the death march "25 Minutes to Go." Gracious.

The hits kept coming, Cash using his old stick-a-piece-of-paper-between-the-strings-on-the-fretboard-to-turn-a-guitar-into-a-snare-drum trick for "I Walk the Line" and the audience continuing to express enthusiasm. He could have delivered another dozen tunes and sent everyone home happy. That's all that was expected and not at all what happened.

Launching the family-revue section of the show, Cash introduced his acoustic guitarist, who had been supplementing the Tennessee Three all night: John Carter Cash, his son. Junior, whose slightly tinny vocals are closer to John Sebastian than Johnny Cash, played three selections, including a keeper he wrote called "I'm Leaving This House." A star wasn't born, but the interlude fit nicely and was well received. Father beamed.

Johnny Cash began dressing in all black (when there's peace and unity and justice, he once sang, he'd consider wearing something else) 30 years before it became de rigueur clubwear among the trendy. Now recording for Rick Rubin's label American, home of Danzig (whose "Thirteen" Cash covers on the new LP) and Black Crowes, he has found cachet with the young, a number of whom attended the Gusman show.

Unfortunately -- or fortunately, depending on your age and tolerance for the role of flashy technology in live musical performance -- ol' J.R. doesn't have to worry about being mistaken for Peter Gabriel or Pink Floyd. A small screen was lowered behind him, and on it appeared grainy footage of trains. Using this less-than-high-tech accessory as backdrop, Cash played two harmonicas and sang raucously "Orange Blossom Special," and, yes, the lyrics about going down to Florida and getting sand in your shoes drew applause.

He quickly switched tracks again, breaking out his famous black acoustic for the lead song on American Recordings, "Delia," the charming tale of a man who shoots a woman twice. People responded to the much-discussed song as if they were hearing it for the first time, and maybe they were. Much more impressive was the next solo offering, Nick Lowe's chilling confessional "The Beast in Me." Beauty was lent to Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire," and Cash gave testimony via his song "Redemption."

Again, the affair could've ended right there. But Cash had yet another surprise, what he calls "my favorite part of the show." A bowlegged woman wearing a short black skirt and a smile entered stage left: June Carter Cash. And you thought she was dead.

Anything but. The woman who rescued Cash from a decade of decadence and married him in 1968, and whose family pretty much invented country music, virtually stole the show.

She and her hubby high-timed it through "Jackson," kissing at the conclusion. The duo -- looking not unlike they did back when they had a network TV show 25 years ago -- had even more fun with Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," June vamping and turning her back to wiggle her butt at the audience. Left alone out there, she spent several minutes aw-shucksing as if she were in a very big, very ornate living room with friends. "I just go where Johnny goes," she said. Admitting that Miami hasn't seen much of her, she explained that back in the old days she "wore Miami out. But country music changed a lot.... But I thought, 'Hey, I could get me one of them short dresses. I got me a topless, strapless, bottomless evening gown...and then found out it was a belt.' Maybe I don't know what's going on in country music any more...but I used to be somebody!"

Still explaining herself, still smiling like she'd won the lottery, Ms. June mentioned daughters Carlene and Rosanne. "I'm their mother. And I'm Rodney Crowell's ex-mother in law. And Marty Stuart's and Nick Lowe's.... I have six daughters and fourteen sons-in-law."

She talked about the Carter family history and seemed surprised when Johnny came back out. "I forgot about you," she quipped. Then she and the rest of the musicians stopped time with her forebears' classic "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."

The circle will not be broken as long as this clan keeps going. But June's inability to understand the current state of country music was evidenced by the curious irony that came at the very beginning of the night. Cash was introduced by DJ Johnny "Shotgun" Dolan from KISS, the big country radio station. The big country radio station that is not giving airplay to Johnny Cash.

But who needs radio? Cash played another five songs, then encored with "A Boy Named Sue" (duplicating the famous bleep vocally) and "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," which he wrote in 1958 partly as a joke based on his quickdraw duels (using blanks) with Sammy Davis, Jr., and now introduces as "a song for the times."

The shifts from somber and violent themes to big fun proved that Cash is still in top form as a performer, whether people come out to see history or just a good show. He closed with "Flesh and Blood," but by then everyone knew exactly how human Johnny Cash is. And being human always has been more important than being a myth.

Johnny Cash performs at 8:00 p.m. tomorrow (Friday) at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd, West Palm Beach; 800-KRAVIS-1. Tickets cost $25 to $40.

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Greg Baker