BRISTOL, Va. — “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
Thus began “At Folsom Prison,” Cash’s landmark live album recorded in California’s Folsom Prison in 1968.
In keeping with tradition, Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion culminated Sunday with a tribute. They chose to honor Cash’s “At Folsom Prison” on the occasion of the album’s 50th anniversary. Staged in Cumberland Square Park in Bristol, Virginia, Charlotte’s New Familiars led as the house band. An array of guests augmented the presentation.
“It’s going to be fairly faithful to Johnny Cash’s album,” said Justin Fedor, of The New Familiars, late Friday night on State Street. “Plus, we’re going to do some songs from his catalog.”
For a man who died in 2003, Cash rose up prominently at Rhythm & Roots. On Friday, The Church Sisters sang an angelic rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues” in Cumberland Square Park. Less than 10 minutes later on the Piedmont Stage, The Ruen Brothers kicked “Folsom Prison Blues” into rockabilly overdrive.
Honky-tonker Dale Watson welcomed Celine Lee onto the State Street Stage on Saturday for a rollicking duet of Johnny Cash and June Carter’s “Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man.” They repeated it Sunday afternoon aboard the Piedmont Stage.
Then as Sunday morning eased into the afternoon, Cash’s image looked along crowded State Street from the back of a jacket painted by vendor Richard Mink. Cash didn’t blink an eye.
But sun-baked folks sure did. Heads turned this way and that to take it all in one last time for this year. At one end of State Street echoed the sweetened sounds of Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. Midway along State, Lauren Morrow beguiled in the Paramount. In the shadow of The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers at the Country Mural Stage, bluegrass’s Blue Highway struck a match to a flame that burns eternal in Bristol.
“It all goes back to the roots,” said Dale Watson, moments after his afternoon performance.
Watson and Lee climbed aboard Asleep at the Wheel’s bus. The Western swing band’s founder and leader, Ray Benson, welcomed all with a wide as Texas grin. As Tiger Woods golfed on his television, Benson and Watson spoke animatingly of guitar amps, home, and Hank Williams.
“What are we going to do?” Benson asked Watson. “I’ll do some Bob Wills things, then you can come on.”
Watson leaned forward.
“Let’s do “Feeling Haggard,’” said Watson.
Moments later, Benson and Asleep at the Wheel fiddled through “Route 66” and Waylon Jennings’ “Bob Wills is Still the King.” In the saddle of the Piedmont Stage, they tipped their Stetsons to Wills via “San Antonio Rose” and the eternally gorgeous “Faded Love.”
Meanwhile in Cumberland Square Park, Fedor and fiddler Evie Andrus performed a quick sound check. Dressed in black from the hat on his head to the boots on his feet, Fedor looked the part as the ringleader of a tribute to Johnny Cash.
Audio of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ “Big Black Train” rumbled through the speakers.
“I’m going to do all I can to hold on to this big black train,” Fedor said.
Cash recorded “At Folsom Prison” with The Tennessee Three. Luther Perkins played guitar, Marshall Grant the bass, and W.S. Holland the drums.
They recorded on a grey and chilly day in the course of two performances — one in the morning, one in the early afternoon at Folsom Prison on Jan. 13, 1968. Seventeen tracks made it onto the original album, which was released in May 1968.
On Sunday, six of those songs made way into the show’s 13-song playlist. Jon McGlocklin of Virginia Ground sang one of them, “Orange Blossom Special.”
“I’ve got chills,” said McGlocklin moments before he sang the song midway through the set. “This one’s special.”
But first came a train that all heard a’comin’.
Guitarist H.L Ruth summoned Luther Perkins’ ghost for one of country music’s most famous intros. Ladies and gentlemen, “Folsom Prison Blues.” As Josh Daniel of The New Familiars sang “and I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when,” the sky seemed to darken all the more.
No matter. Folks rose from their seats to party along as Fedor rumbled through “Cocaine Blues.” Quick jabs of “Jackson” and “I Got Stripes” led to Jamen Denton’s inspired rendering of Harlan Howard’s “Busted.”
Johnson City’s Beth Snapp stepped forth into the fray for a jubilant “Cry, Cry, Cry” moments before Fedor lent a tear to Cash’s somber “I Still Miss Someone.”
Now, the tribute was anything but a music-by-numbers rendering of Cash’s voice, sound, and music. Respect rode shotgun with Fedor and company. For instance, the clouds nearly parted as C2 and The Brothers Reed singer Cameron Clark beat a mighty drum on “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.”
Yeah, you can run on. You can run on for a long time. But sooner or later the might of The Man in Black makes his presence known. The New Familiars proved that on Sunday.