Concert honoring Jennings, Cash, Bradley tugs at hearts

by Jay Orr, Staff Writer The Tennessean - Friday, June 26, 1998

"Give me the roses while I live," goes the old Carter Family song, and the Witness History II concert at the Ryman Auditorium was a massive bouquet to honorees Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Harold Bradley.

The late Owen Bradley--like Cash a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame--died earlier this year and was the only non-living recipient of a "Chettie" award at the event Wednesday night.

Cash, Jennings and session guitarist Harold Bradley were on hand for the 3-1/2 hour concert, anchored by British rocker and Atkins champion Mark Knopfler. Cash and Jennings joined Atkins, their friends and family as they looked on from couches at the rear of the Ryman stage.

For the second year, the Witness History concert is the keynote presentation for Chet Atkins' Musicians Days, continuing through Sunday in Nashville. The festival is aimed at stimulating citywide musical activity, honoring the musicians who make the music behind the stars and encouraging musical education for young people.

Where last year's inaugural Witness History concert offered a somewhat diffuse salute to Atkins, recipient of the first Chettie, this year's concert was focused, illuminating, entertaining and often moving.

Cash's former son-in-law, Marty Stuart, hosted the evening's first segment and started with a powerfully understated reading of Cash's Blue Train, supported by a superb "orchestra" including guitarists Richard Bennett and Brent Mason, steel guitarist Paul Franklin, drummer Chad Cromwell, bassist Glenn Worf, pianist Jim Cox, keyboardist Guy Fletcher and Knopfler himself.

Turning his attention to Jennings, Stuart said, "This song changed my life when I heard it. It's probably one of the Top 5 coolest songs in this town." Then, with mandolin, he performed an extended meditation on Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way, with a new Stuart-written verse that took a shot at "Karaoke cowboys" who don't know the words to Luckenbach, Texas.

Stuart made the first presentation of the evening--a framed gold record for his album Hillbilly Rock--to Cash.

In the celebration of non-conformists and pioneers, there were many highlights:

Travis Tritt slowed down Cash's I Walk the Line, with Knopfler playing guitar and followed with Jennings' I've Always Been Crazy, playing a black-and-white Jennings-style Fender Telecaster.

Referring to past antics by Jennings and Cash, Stuart told Tritt he had figured out how to earn a tribute concert--tell the Country Music Association to kiss off, record an album that wins a Grammy and nobody notices, and take out a $15,000 ad in Billboard and shoot the whole town a bird.

Without question, the emotional highlight of the evening came early when Kris Kristofferson performed his Sunday Morning Coming Down, made famous by Cash. Recently in ill health, Cash strode confidently to the mike to join Kristofferson on the last verse. After the song, they joined in a sincere embrace. "He didn't do that at soundcheck," a tearful Kristofferson said.

"This is the first stage I've walked on since last October," Cash said as he accepted his Chettie. "June kept saying, 'You can make it. You can do it'."

Mark Collie joined Jennings' road band, the Waylors, reunited after 15 years and anchored by drummer Richie Albright, for Rainy Day Woman and I Ain't Living Long Like This.

Accepting his Chettie, Jennings thanked Atkins for signing him to RCA and helping launch his country career. "In those days, if you had Chet Atkins' name on your record, it got played, no matter what.

Brenda Lee, standing on an equipment case, presented Owen Bradley's Chettie to his daughter Patsy Bradley and grandson Clay Bradley following performances by Mandy Barnett of Conway Twitty's Hello Darlin and Patsy Cline's Crazy, both produced originally by Bradley.

"My father loved music and all the people that made music," Patsy Bradley said.

Owen Bradley's brother, Harold Bradley, received a surprise Chettie in honor of his achievements as the "most recorded session guitarist in the history of popular music." Now president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians Union, Bradley praised his brother and Atkins as "Men of high intelligence and great vision," and added "Let's continue to do this. This is wonderful."

Gillian Welch and partner Dave Rawlings took things in an acoustic direction with Tennessee Stud, their own Acony Bell, and Amanda.

On a night when guitars played a major role in the proceedings, John Anderson's honky-tonk vocals were superb on Don't Take Your Love To Town, Just to Satisfy You and Knopfler's When It Comes to You.

A member of the support cast through most of the evening, Knopfler stepped out front at the end for Setting Me Up; a beautiful arrangement of Cash's I Still Miss Someone , a newly penned saga about the Everly Brothers, Two Skinny Kids; Romeo & Juliet; and a dazzling 12-minute Sultans of Swing.

Atkins, sans cane, walked on stage at the end to present Knopfler with a new guitar and to join him in singing The Next Time I'm in Town, the same song with which the duo ended last year's Witness History concert.

With Atkins, Cash and Jennings back from bouts of ill health and with Bradley's recent passing, emotions were high throughout the concert. The near-capacity concert audience had to feel that they were part of a musical night for the ages.

Return To Articles Return To Home Page