A Tribute to the Central Coast’s own “Man in Black”
One of the very first singles I bought, back in prehistory when a single was a 7” vinyl disc played at 45 r.p.m., was a song by the country music legend, Johnny Cash. I was too young back then to know he was a legend. In fact, all I’d heard of him was that one hit plus a couple of humorous ballads regularly played on BBC Radio’s ‘Junior Choice’ programme. In time I discovered a few more of his songs that I enjoyed, but I never learned much about the man. Since I was a child of the seventies, when the period of Cash’s greatest popularity was coming to a close, I suppose he was just a little before my time. Or so I thought until recently, but after attending Dan Thompson’s Johnny Cash tribute show at Laycock Street Theatre I’ve had to revise my assumptions, and I’ve been inspired to learn a little more about the musical career of a man who has been described as “one of the most influential American musicians of the 20th century”*
Although he was best known as a country music singer and songwriter, Cash performed and recorded songs from a wide variety of genres including (but not limited to) rock and roll, blues, gospel and folk. In his later career he even recorded covers of contemporary pop artists. His versatility is reflected in his induction into three different Halls Of Fame: Country, Rock and Roll, and Gospel. Born in Arkansas in 1932, his early music and subsequent career were shaped by memories of his large and deeply religious farming family as they struggled through the years of the Great Depression. In the mid fifties Cash, along with Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, began playing together as ‘The Tennessee Three’. He started recording with Sun Records and had an early hit with “Folsom Prison Blues”. In the sixties he toured with the Carter family and met June Carter, who later become his second wife, and who would record and perform with him for more than thirty years. Between 1969 and 1971 he had his own television show with The Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins, featuring guest stars as diverse as Neil Young, Louis Armstrong, James Taylor, Ray Charles, Derek and the Dominos, and Bob Dylan.
It was in these decades that he released his best-known hits, including “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire”, and the humorous songs “One Piece at a Time” and “A Boy Named Sue”, and he also recorded the “Jackson” duet with June. During this time he cultivated a sombre and slightly rebellious image, performing dressed all in dark clothes that earned him the epithet “The Man in Black”. His sympathy for prisoners and the benefit concerts he performed in prisons led many to suppose he was an ex-convict himself but, although he was arrested a few times on drug related charges, he never served a prison sentence.
His popular appeal waned toward the end of the seventies, but he continued to perform and record hit albums. In the eighties he joined with Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson to tour as ‘The Highwaymen’. In 1986 he recorded the album ‘Class of ’55’ with Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins then, in the nineties, his career took a new direction when he teamed up with rap and hard rock producer, Rick Rubin, and became involved with artists as diverse as Tom Petty, U2 and Nine Inch Nails.
June Carter-Cash, his co-worker and wife of 35 years, died in 2003 and Johnny survived her by only four months, but he continued performing and recording right up to his own death in September 2003, at the age of 71. In his lifetime he wrote over a thousand songs, recorded dozens of albums and received numerous Grammys and other music awards. His final work continued to be released posthumously until 2010 and beyond. Just this year, Legacy Recordings released ‘Out Among the Stars’, an album of previously unreleased material from recordings Cash made in the eighties.
Most of this I didn’t know before I attended the tribute concert “Golden Greats of the Man in Black” but Dan Thompson’s show was an education for me. More than a hits show, and not merely a rehash of well known songs from the most popular period, this was a true tribute that spanned Cash’s entire career and sampled the full range of the man’s repertoire. The two hour show covered the hits, certainly, but it also included music as diverse as the gospel number “Were you there when they Crucified my Lord” and Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails number “Hurt”. It took in the period with The Highwaymen, numbers from the ‘Class of 55’ album, and even tracks from Cash’s “new” album, ‘Out Among the Stars’. With over four decades of music to choose from the concert showcased the best and, although many of the songs were unfamiliar to me, there wasn’t one among them that wasn’t immediately engaging. I was completely absorbed for the whole two hours, often foot tapping and occasionally singing along. More than that, though, the show told a story in music, and with a judicious smattering of biographical background. I came away feeling I’d learned more in that two hours about Cash the man, his music, his faith, sympathies and sensitivities than I had from any bio-pic.
Former Independent Country Music Male Vocalist of the Year, Dan Thompson, is a perfect match for Cash, faithfully reproducing the familiar bass-baritone voice, and he has a vocal range Cash himself might have envied. His performance of ‘I Walk the Line’ stunned the audience when he successively pitched the key down to a point where I was convinced it would not be humanly possible for him to reach the lowest notes. He proved me wrong! He is supported by a band of outstanding musicians including guitarist Stuie French, slap bass player Artie Taylor and drummer Brad Bergen. Between them they have decades of experience in the music business as performers, recording artists and song writers. Stu is one of Australia’s most admired country musicians and has worked with top artists like Troy Cassar-Daley, Slim Dusty and Lee Kernaghan to name just a few. He also has the distinction of having played with Johnny Cash himself when Troy Cassar-Daley supported The Highwaymen during their Australian tour in 1995.
The band were joined on stage by award winning singer songwriter and Golden guitar winner, Tamara Stewart, a successful country recording artist who has toured Australia, the UK and Nashville. Tamara was a real live wire on stage and added extra sparkle to a show already filled with energy, humour and banter between the band members. Like the others, she was dedicated to authenticity, taking the trouble to learn June Carter-Cash’s favoured instrument, the autoharp, especially for her role as Johnny’s marital and professional partner.
The dedication of all the members of the band was impressive. They worked hard to give the audience an authentic and memorable Johnny Cash experience, but what made it most entertaining was that they were all thoroughly enjoying themselves in the process. Throughout the performance their love of the man and his music shone through, and communicated to all who watched the show.
During September and October ‘Cash: the Concert’ continues the Australian tour through Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia, but they’ll be back home on the Central Coast next year with a special show to mark the 60th anniversary of Cash’s recording debut. Be sure to follow the website at http://www.cashlive.com.au for up to date news and more information about the band.
* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Cash (Biographical material on Johnny Cash drawn from wikipedia and Dan Thompson’s website. Images and biographical material on Dan and his band courtesy of his facebook page and the CASHLIVE website. Please click on images to view full size.)