LAKE DELTON — The fact that so many country music legends still tour poses a slight problem.
Country fans, critics and performers pump up these singers (oh, say, George Jones, Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson) with so much acclaim you expect ’em to be as big as a parade float in person.
Such is the case with Johnny Cash, who performed a rousing show at the Crystal Grand Theatre Saturday night.
In the shadows of disturbingly tacky Wisconsin Dells, the 64-year-old Cash approached his past hits head-on, presenting each gem without too much polish.
Check this out: He opened with the fiery “Folsom Prison Blues,” then played the roots rocker “Get Rhythm.”
Before saying, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” he delivered two other classics; took off his long, black jacket; rolled up his sleeves; and looked like a gunslinger who just stepped into the saloon.
Best of all, his voice still commands the same attention as an approaching train.
And Cash isn’t content to be a museum relic in concert, either.
Country radio deserted him before Reagan took office, so he’s about to release his second album on the renegade rock label American Recordings.
On Saturday, he showcased three stellar new songs, each belonging alongside his Sun Records output.
His broad appeal, though, could be seen in the 1,500 fans, who packed the Crystal Grand.
While most Cash faithful wouldn’t look out of place at church bingo, you also had a handful of rock curiosity seekers. In the lobby, I passed one guy in a T-shirt with cult fave PJ Harvey on it, followed by two women sporting sweatshirts from the most unhip place on Earth, Branson, Mo.
Cash’s biggest fault, however, is his kindness. It’s one thing to acknowledge four generations of one family in the crowd or Gov. Tommy Thompson sitting in the front row; it’s another to let his cackling wife, June Carter, and two painfully mediocre adult kids perform during the show.
But just as each family member was about to drown during the two-hour show, Cash walked from the wings, issuing encouragement and returning the show to its proper place.
That’s what I’ll remember: Cash stepping to the mike and offering a birthday tribute to his buddy Kris Kristofferson or relating heartfelt stories about his first recordings on 78 RPM records.
By the end, Cash left the stage standing tall. To me, he looked as big as a parade float.