The 2018 Ballet Ball united esteemed dancers from the Nashville Ballet with some of Music City’s best vocalists to pay tribute to the late Johnny Cash. The performance, held on Saturday (March 3) at Schermerhorn Symphony Center, included highlights from Under the Lights, a contemporary ballet choreographed by Christopher Stuart. Dancers leapt and twirled on the stage as Sheryl Crow, Ronnie Dunn, Jamey Johnson, Bill Miller, Devin Dawson, John Carter Cash and Ana Cristina Cash sang the country legend’s best known material.
The idea to launch what some are calling The Johnny Cash Ballet may have raised some eyebrows, and even the singer’s son admits that he, too, was apprehensive about the concept.
“When I first heard the idea of the Cash Ballet I thought that perhaps it wouldn’t work,” John Carter Cash said upon accepting the Synergy Award ahead of the evening’s performance. “But hearing the vision for the ballet made me believe that it could happen. I truly believe it’s a beautiful ballet . . . the proof is in the performance.”
Throughout the evening, Cash talked about his father and mother fondly, and often told the stories behind many of the songs featured. Ronnie Dunn kicked off the evening with a rollicking performance of “Folsom Prison Blues,” and before he took the stage, Cash shared that he was a longtime friend of his family. Dunn channeled Cash with his deep vocals and as ballet dancers appeared on the stage, the classic tune came visibly to life.
Sheryl Crow then joined Dunn for a stirring duet of “If I Were a Carpenter.” As he introduced his duet partner, Dunn admitted that he had been stalking Crow on YouTube and was amazed at her collaborations with the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Prince. As they finished the song, Crow quipped, “Now we can go on YouTube and watch us sing together.”
Afterwards, Crow performed “I Walk the Line” solo and shared that Cash told her years ago that he wrote the song for his first wife, Vivian, in 1956 while he was on tour and missing home. Pacing the halls of his hotel, the song’s lyrics came to him.
Highlights throughout the evening included Jamey Johnson’s powerful cover of “Ring of Fire” and Ana Cristina Cash’s haunting rendition of “Hurt.” A song that her husband admits is difficult to hear, she did the heartbreaking ballad justice.
“My father was never afraid to say what he felt. He was never afraid to expose himself,” Cash admits. “Even with his own frailties, he would still step out, and, in some way, he never lost his dignity in the process. This song is the perfect example of that. It’s hard for me to hear it still and not be overwhelmed emotionally.”
The energy picked up soon after as Cash joined his wife for a spirited cover of “Jackson” as dancers filled the stage. Prefacing the song, Cash told the audience that his father and mother won a Grammy for their collaboration and accepted the award at the Ryman Auditorium on Feb. 20, 1968. The very next day they were married. “It’s absolutely true that they got married in a fever and we’re going to give it all we’ve got,” he adds.
Country newcomer Devin Dawson later shared the stage with Bill Miller as the two artists performed “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” A song Dawson knows well, he tells Sounds Like Nashville that performing the track on stage was a full-circle moment as he grew up right outside of Folsom Prison.
“I had been listening to that song forever. Those lyrics are so powerful,” he tells us backstage following his performance. “It’s one of those really vulnerable, emotional, deep, dark, piercing songs.”
Dawson rehearsed with the band ahead of the performance at the Cash Cabin in Tennessee and says it was an incredible experience. While he admits it was nerve-wracking to share the stage with so many legendary musicians, he made sure to sit back and take notes.
“These people who have been playing together for years and have been friends for years, that energy is contagious and it also calms you down in a way,” he shares. “It’s also cool to know that I can do this and I can get through this and I feel at home in this setting. It’s encouraging to me and it’s incredible to be here. I’m thankful that they asked me to do it.”
The evening of music and dance closed with a memorable performance of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” as each artist returned to the stage to sing together. Prior to the all-star collaboration, Cash’s son reminded those in attendance of the impact his father’s music has had on all walks of life.
“It has been a wondrous time on stage for us tonight. My father’s music goes on and on, his heritage goes on and on, his life goes on and on,” he notes. “It’s interesting, because if you have a hip-hop artist, a rap artist, a pop artist and a country gospel artist, they all have the same Johnny Cash record collection. That diversity in his music reaches so many people on so many different levels.”