NEW YORK — Everyone came in black on this night, whether it was a black leather jacket (Willie Nelson) or a black long-rider's coat (Kris Kristofferson) or a black evening dress (Trisha Yearwood). Then actor-director Tim Robbins took the stage in a black business suit to read, under a spotlight, the liner notes from the legendary "Folsom Prison" album, ending with the lonely lament of inmates that "there is nothing to look forward to."
On this night, though, there was something to look forward to.
No sooner were the bleak words out of Robbins' mouth than another, deeper voice--a familiar rumble, but one not heard in a while--announced from center stage, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."
Then the lights went up on the Man in Black himself, there with his guitar--without even a stool for support--ready to plunge into his anthem to underdogs everywhere, "I hear the train a-coming; it's rollin' 'round the bend. . . . "
The appearance Tuesday night at the Hammerstein Ballroom here was the first for the 67-year-old Cash since October 1997, when he failed to come out for an encore in Knoxville, Tenn., then two days later almost fell while bending for a dropped guitar pick in Flint, Mich.
He then canceled a book tour and all concerts and had a spokesman disclose that he had Parkinson's disease, the nervous system disorder that killed his grandfather and that, in recent years, has afflicted two other American luminaries, former boxer Muhammad Ali and evangelist Billy Graham, a good friend of Cash.
Cash had been in seclusion with his family since the announcement, mostly at a home in Jamaica, fueling speculation about the severity of his condition and whether he would perform again.
"Feels good, feels good, feels good," said Cash, who showed a few more years on his face, to be sure, and clutched his hands together at times, perhaps to control tremors, but otherwise ambled about the stage with determination--even a little strut.
He tried to keep an it's-nothing-special expression through the standing ovation that followed "Folsom Prison Blues," but it finally gave way to a smile and a thumbs-up to his band.
Cash didn't try to push it, performing only that number and a group rendition of "I Walk the Line," in which he brought out his wife, June Carter Cash, then others--from the field of country, pop (Sheryl Crow), rock (Dave Matthews), gospel and even hip-hop (Wyclef Jean)--who performed songs he wrote or made famous.
Tuesday's show was put together for a TV special, "The All-Star Tribute to Johnny Cash," which will air on TNT April 18. But it avoided the usual pitfalls--forced testimonials and pretend intimacy--that often mark such events. Indeed, the concert became a Cash family reunion, bringing together all his children and staff members and others who have worked with him--or been inspired by him--over the decades.
Bassist Dave Rorick, who worked with Cash back in 1955 when he joined a Sun Records stable that included Elvis and Carl Perkins, came out of a 15-year retirement to play with his band.
Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, both touring in Europe, gave tributes by video, the latter explaining that Cash "taught all us young guys that not only was it all right to tear up all those lines and boundaries, but it was important."
It was uncertain until the last moment whether Cash would be able to perform, according to his longtime manager, Lou Robin, who had been trying to arrange such a tribute for several years.
"Each day is different," Robin said. "He doesn't know one hour to the next how he'll feel. It's that tricky. It's moment to moment."
'Everything That's Good'
Backstage, however, June Carter Cash said she never doubted that "the strongest man I know" would be able to do it.
"We've been playing together at home," she said. "In some ways, the last 1 1/2 years we've had the best time of our lives. What's happened makes you mindful of everything that's good."
Other backstage talk centered on a new interest of Cash's--golf.
"He only found out he could do that a few weeks ago," his wife said. "But he's always been a great shot with a gun. He hit everything he could shoot at."
When Willie Nelson heard his friend--and bandmate in the occasional group the Highwaymen--was dabbling with the game that's his own obsession, "Willie sent him a new set of clubs, a new set of everything," June Cash said.
"We speak about my coming down to play," Nelson himself reported. "He's been feeling pretty bad. So that's a good sign."
One person not so sure was Kristofferson, who joked that the game seemed an unlikely fit for the man he met in Nashville 35 years ago, then "skinny as a snake and using and abusing, but also intensely dedicated to what he was doing."
"Now he lives on a golf course in Jamaica. Imagine--John Cash surrounded by fairways and greens!" said Kristofferson, who named his 12-year-old son after Cash. "I think this is one of the first signs of the Apocalypse."
Though it was a time to talk about the night--and not the future--Nelson did offer an invitation to the guest of honor.
"Get that bus warmed up because the Highwaymen are ready to do it again," he said. "I keep telling John--me and Kris are ready when he is."