The Kennedy Center Concert Hall is a long way from the flatbed trucks Johnny Cash called his stage when his career began 25 years ago in Tennessee. Cash's show there last night, a benefit for Georgetown University's Lombardi Cancer Research Center, was called "Johnny Cash's America," and that's exactly what he served up: the tales of wars in the West, protest and railroad songs, narrative ballads that have always made him much more than just a country artist.
The show also featured a number of brief guest performances. Rodney Crowell, Cash's son-in-law and one of contemporary country's brightest lights, turned in an excellent version of his "Leavin' Louisiana in the Broad Daylight." John Prine and Steve Goodman entertained with songs whose virtues were more lyrical than musical. June Carter Cash romped through Carter Family classics, did some spirited clogging and joined her husband for hymns.
In many songs, such as "Ballad of the Alamo," Cash tried to say something about the traditions and resilience of his country. But his own career is perhaps the best symbol. After a quarter-century, he still uses those spare rockabilly arrangements, still has W. S. Holland on drums, still wears black and still looks like he was carved from the Grand Canyon.