By Al Stewart
If you wish to discuss Johnny Cash with James Garner, be prepared to spend some time.
The 40 year-old singer and musician who grew up on a cotton farm in Hanford, Calif. is a long-time and highly knowledgeable fan of the singer known as “The Man in Black.” Garner can wax nostalgic and lovingly share antidotes about Cash, as though he is recalling a cherished family member. He says he knows “probably a thousand” of the artist’s songs.
“Oh gosh, I will talk to you all day about Johnny Cash. His music is the music I love, and it’s the music I love to play,” Garner told Arcadia Weekly. “I listened to a tape of him when I was 11 years old, and it is something I will never forget. It changed my life. It truly did.”
Meeting the legendary singer when Garner was just 14 ranks among the biggest moments of his life, he says. Other great memories include when he and his tribute band were asked to perform for inmates at the same California prisons where historic concerts by Cash once took place.
Simply called “James Garner’s Tribute to Johnny Cash,” the highly acclaimed concert experience is set to take the stage at the Arcadia Performing Arts Center, June 22, at 7 p.m. “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” and “Ring of Fire,” are among the Cash classics performed by Garner along with three musicians who pay homage to Cash’s longtime backing band, the Tennessee Three.
“The theater in Arcadia looks beautiful and we are really looking forward to playing there,” said Garner. “This show goes over well in setting like that. We want to extol the virtues of great music.”
He stresses that audiences can expect far more than a cover band preforming popular songs from a great artist.
“What’s different about our shows is it is not just a concert,” he says. “We want people to understand the man. Between songs we share stories and talk about the life of Johnny Cash. I am hoping people come away much better informed about him and why he is so important.”
Garner says the tribute, now in its 12th year, is devoted to keeping the music alive while educating audiences about Cash, who died in 2003 at age 71. The show, has been performed over 500 times, has been crafted with a deep commitment to accuracy and authenticity.
Fittingly, the star dresses impeccably in all-black, and sports a carefully coifed jet-black pompadour. (As Cash famously sang, “But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back, Up front there ought ‘a be a Man in Black.”)
As for creditability, the show has strong bona fides. Garner and his band performed at Folsom State Prison in 2008 and at San Quentin State Prison in 2010; the same facilities where Cash preformed for inmates in the late 1960s. In 2018, he was invited back to the City of Folsom for the 50th anniversary of Cash’s prison concert, performing two sold-out shows at the Harris Center for the Arts. Guest artists included Tara Cash, the singer’s daughter.
Garner, who says he began playing guitar so he could sing Johnny Cash songs, is quick to credit the three members of his band for recreating the rockabilly, toe-tapping sounds closely associated with Cash. “They are first class, great musicians,” he says.
He notes that Denny Colleret is able to recreate the signature guitar sound and style of Cash’s highly regarded lead guitarist Luther Perkins. He credits his drummer, Nick Auriemmo with capturing the energy and distinctive style of Cash’s only drummer, W.S. Holland. Bass player Rick Duncan, meanwhile, was trained at Julliard School of Music and San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Garner, explains that his tribute show comes from remarkably modest origins: karaoke night. When he sang a few tunes from his favorite artist accompanied by a live band, people look notice. The favorable response and encouragement gave him the impetus to create the tribute show.
His attention to detail includes recreating Cash’s vocal inflections and physical presence on stage. Still, there is one detail Garner has intentionally fudged. Instead of beginning each show with Cash’s signature line, “Hello…I’m Johnny Cash,” Garner kicks off his tribute with this simple from-the-heart declaration: “Hello…We love Johnny Cash.”