Johnny Cash became the first country singer to play Orange County's imposing Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, giving a new blue-denim, blue-collar look to the $70-million hall that's been primarily a stamping ground for the ballet, symphony and opera since it opened in Costa Mesa a year and a half ago.
In fact, shortly after strolling onto a stage outfitted for "Aida," which is in the midst of a two-week run at the center, Cash wryly commented, "As you probably know after three songs, this is not ' Ada .' "
Bridging cultural gaps is nothing new to Cash. Throughout his 33-year recording career he's straddled pop, country and gospel, and with his numerous '60s hits as well as his 1969-71 television series, Cash can take as much credit as anyone for bringing country music beyond its regional beginnings to a national audience two decades ago.
Because his popularity still extends far beyond the mainline country crowd, Tuesday's generous three-hour show (which also featured his wife June Carter Cash and the Carter Family) attracted an eclectic mix to the center's 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall. They showed up in everything from bow ties and tux to bolo ties and trucks.
On his records, more so than in concert, Cash has always been willing to gamble, whether with a commercially risky concept album like 1977's "The Rambler" or with outside material from Bruce Springsteen (he recorded two songs from "Nebraska" in 1983) and Elvis Costello (whose dazzling "The Big Light" is on Cash's latest album).
Unfortunately, the performance included only one song of recent vintage (last year's "The Ballad of Barbara"), perhaps due to the fact Cash hasn't had a solo Top 10 hit since 1981.
As it was, the show--last in a string of Southland concerts by Cash and company--exhaustively covered the history of Johnny Cash, from several of his earliest Sun Records songs ("Cry, Cry, Cry," "Get Rhythm") to his signature hits ("I Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues"), to heartfelt duets with June ("Where Did We Go Right," "Jackson"), to an invigorating dose of religious material that was spirited, not preachy.
Cash should, however, retire one overly pious film clip he's used for years in the gospel set, in which a blond, bearded man dressed as Christ wanders the countryside anointing, among others, June Carter. This cheap attempt at conveying spirituality lacks the integrity of some of the other filmed segments, which illustrate songs by showing prison inmates and locomotives.
Except for that one misstep, however, integrity reigned throughout the evening. Unlike too many performers with as many years behind them, Cash never slighted his older songs by dispatching them in medleys or with rote renditions. Who knows how many times he's performed "Folsom"? But when he sang "Those people keep a movin' / And that's what tortures me," the lyric still seared with the pain of freedom lost.
He also strives to keep alive the narrative folk-ballad form, another cornerstone of American popular music, by reviving such traditionals as "Casey Jones" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky" and with newer contributions such as "Highwayman," the 1985 Waylon-Willie-Johnny-Kris hit.
It was equally fitting that the First Family of country music--the Carter Family, whose lineage includes pioneers A. P. Carter and Mother Maybelle Carter--shared the stage at this Crimson Castle of Culture. Sisters June, Helen and Anita are currently being joined by the family's rock 'n' roll maverick Carlene Carter (June's daughter), whose spunky, sexy vocals and stage presence proved she hasn't totally abandoned the rebellious rock ethic.
The Carters' lustrous harmonies and simple acoustic instrumental backing on songs of love and family togetherness born of Appalachian hardship are every bit as integral to America's culture as "Aida" is to Italy's.
June Carter even picked up an autoharp for a zippy version of "San Antonio Rose," shortly after literally kicking up her heels and flashing her fire-engine red bloomers while Johnny sang the classic train song "Wreck of the Old 97."
Now that's high culture.