By Al Stewart
With a keen eye for detail, a treasure trove of heartwarming stories and an obvious passion for the music, James Garner’s Tribute to Johnny Cash brought an enthusiastic audience to their feet at the Arcadia Performing Arts Center Saturday night.
The 90-minute show, June 22, loving recalled the legendary singer’s career, as Garner and his three-piece band offered the hits and even some of the “deep catalog” material that made Johnny Cash famous. Between songs, little-known anecdotes about his life and career were shared with wit and affection.
Polished, poised and dressed, of course, entirely in black, the 40 year-old Garner faithful recreated the “Man in Black’s” commanding stage presence. Singing, at times, with that same look of fiery intensity, he mimicked the exact way Cash would hold aloft his Martin guitar. The Hanford, Calif. native also spoke with a humility and grace reminiscent of Cash, even if not exactly in the same powerful baritone and southern twang as the singer, who hailed from Kingsland, Ark.
Having presented this highly entraining and informative tribute over 500 times, including the two California state prison where Cash once preformed, Garner’s command of the subject is exemplary. Even the most devoted fans of Cash, who died in 2003 at age 71, likely learned a good bit about this American icon.
For example, his 1970 hit about being down and out, “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” was written by a janitor at Columbia Recording Studios who slipped it to Cash in the hopes he would consider it. Garner noted that Cash was told to change the line, “I’m wishing Lord that I was stoned” when he performed it on his TV show, but he refused to do so.
“The janitor’s name was ‘Kris Kristofferson,’” Garner told the audience, bringing laughter and applause; he added that Saturday’s show also happened to fall on Kristofferson’ 83rd birthday.
As it turns out, the biggest hit of Cash’s career came in 1969 when he spontaneously improvised a version of a smart-aleck’s poem called “A Boy Named Sue.” As Garner recounted it, Cash told his band to follow along as best they could as he sang the poem reading it from a slip of paper. The setting was San Quentin State Prison and the enthusiastic response from the audience of inmates helped make the song Cash’s biggest hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
The three very able musicians supporting Garner were clearly up to the task of recreating the sound and look of Cash’s longtime band, the Tennessee Three. Indeed, Denny Colleret on lead guitar, Nick Auriemmo drumming and Bass player Rick Duncan are undoubtedly a major reason the tribute has been thrilling fans of Johnny Cash for over a decade.
The fans in Arcadia where thrilled when, at the close of the show, Garner launched into an old novelty song that was recorded in 1996 by Cash called, “I’ve Been Everywhere.” An extraordinarily difficult song to sing—or even commit to memory—the lyrics include a rapid-fire roll call of dozens of towns, cities and countries. While versions have been written for other countries, singers who can perform this song as flawless as Garner did are a rarity.
Called out for an encore, Garner and his band revised a medley of the hits including “Folsom Prison Blues,” the song that opened the show. Gracious and clearly moved by the warm reception, Garner closed by saying, “God blues you folks and God bless Johnny Cash.”
The show was also billed as the second annual Arcadia Americana Festival. In 2018, Arcadia PAC launched the event with a show from “Krazy Kirk and the Hillbillies.”