Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Multimedia concert event celebrates ‘Man in Black’

By Heather Longley
Left: A female pilot sings with outstretched arms. Right: A large crowd of cast members sing and laugh.

Country-rock singer-songwriter Johnny Cash was a complicated figure. The man born as “J. R.” suffered hardship and loss early in life, but music was a constant. He grew into a natural musical talent and took the everyman’s name when he signed to Sun Records in the mid 1950s.

After years of recording his gospel renditions, Cash’s career finally took off. But his personal life would start to spiral due to substance abuse. Cash looked the “outlaw,” but he never served time in prison; he only performed there. And despite personal demons, he never wavered from his Christian principles and was an early ally of the downtrodden and exploited. To many, Cash was the epitome of American realism.

“Johnny Cash — The Official Concert Experience” is a multimedia and live-music event celebrating the life and music of the “Man in Black” — from his perspective. The production was created in partnership with the Cash Estate and John Carter Cash, son of Johnny and June. The Center for the Performing Arts will host the event at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 20, in Eisenhower Auditorium.

What to expect

“The Official Concert Experience” features live artists performing in sync to the brooding baritone in a state-of-the-art technique.

“Johnny Cash wrote amazing short songs,” event creative producer Dean Elliott said. “So there's a lot of music in this show. We’ve got a fabulous band that were handpicked by John Carter Cash and our team who are going to faithfully recreate that.”

The unique aspect of this event is that archival footage of “The Johnny Cash Show” will be broadcast on a screen above the stage, creating a “live concert” effect. The music program ran on ABC from June 1969 to March 1971 and helped to launch the careers of many singer-songwriters.

The full band and three singers will take turns singing the songs of Cash as well as artists who performed on “The Johnny Cash Show,” including Carl Perkins, the Carter Family and The Statler Brothers, who opened each episode with a song.

“There’s quite a few songs there where we will hear Johnny Cash sing with our band, and he’ll become the lead singer,” Elliot said. “All of the hits are there. He had an amazing ability to write sad songs, funny songs, upbeat songs, poignant songs.”

The live musicians and singers will perform more than 30 of Cash’s iconic country-blues anthems, including “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire,” “Ragged Old Flag,” “Big River,” “Get Rhythm” and ”Cry, Cry, Cry.”

In his own words

“The heart of the piece, aside from the music, is exploring some of the themes that he felt really passionate about — prisoners, the common man, the steam trains and a lot of these classic American themes; and traditional themes like love, family and friendship,” Elliot said.

The event also will feature interviews with John Carter Cash, son of Johnny and June, where he will share the story and music of the American music legend.

“It gives us some insight that you wouldn't get on a normal TV show or going through YouTube,” Elliot said. “Fans of Johnny Cash will learn something new right from his son.”

Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.