On the eve of Johnny Cash's 80th birthday, there are several appropriate ways to commemorate the event. You could dress in black, program playlists on the iPod full of old country and gospel standards, or you could find where the Johnny Folsom 4 are playing. Those familiar with the Cash tribute band would already know they're in for a treat, but these Raleigh talents aren't just offering up the old Cash covers tonight, not on this special occasion. No, rather they are offering tribute to The Johnny Cash Show which ran on ABC from 1969-1971. And there is no better venue for such a spectacle than Saxapahaw's Haw River Ballroom.
Nestled along the banks of the sleepy Haw, the Ballroom sits inside a former cotton mill that also houses The Eddy Pub, Saxapahaw General Store, and a police outpost. The high ceilings, the three floor layout, the parts salvaged from the old mill (including an old drying vat with underlighting that casts a brilliant effect) all offer a vibe that rests somewhere between a Saturday night at the Ryman and a Sunday picnicking on the town square. However, no other venue outside of a prison seems suitable for an evening with Johnny Cash.
And would any other act dare attempt to pull it off? The old Johnny Cash Show featured not just the talents of the "Man in Black" and the Tennessee Three, but showcased guests ranging from Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Monkees, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Mama Cass, Clapton, Linda Ronstadt... just to name a few. Over the nearly two year run of the show, Cash had over forty guests appear to perform, making it a true spectacle not only of country talent, but also gospel, folk, rock and blues. The audience never knew just who would drop in from one episode to the next.
Quite an ambitious premise for 2012, right? Not for the Johnny Folsom 4. Band leader David Burney takes the mantle of the Man in Black, strumming wildly as his basso-baritone voice fills the giant venue. The boom-chicka-boom comes from David Gresham on lead, Tom Mills slapping the bass fiddle, and Randy Benefield on drums. Eleanor Jones steps out onto the stage, adopting the sassy June Carter persona and welcomes the audience before Burney whips around to face the masses and says, "Hello. I'm Johnny Cash."
The roar of the crowd nearly drowns out the opening chords of "Folsom Prison Blues." Folks are dancing in no time. By the time Burney's singing about that "man in Reno," it's obvious that they needed a venue big enough to hold the swagger and bravado of Cash's music and the Haw River Ballroom fits the bill. Between songs, Burney addresses the crowd as friends, just as Cash would have and did. We're treated to not only biographical information about Cash, but insight into how he performed, what he believed, what he liked. "Five Feet High and Rising" tells us of his childhood fears of flood during hard times. His love for gospel music is explained before launching into a moving spiritual. For those of us unable to have seen Cash perform during his life, this is more than a treat. It's a time machine.
And then there's the guests. The Johnny Folsom 4 trucks out top Triangle talent, just as Cash did during the run of his show. Cash always loved performing with contemporaries and Burney is no different. Big Medicine's Joe Newberry joins the act, offering vocals and guitar for some Carter Family, an act that influenced Cash from childhood to death. Steve Howell of the 90s country act Backsliders steps in and embodies Carl Perkins, replete with the flair, finger work, and fringed jacket of the rockabilly demigod. Eleanor Jones's saucy twang elicits goose pimples as she joins Burney for such Cash and Carter classics as "Long Legged Guitar Pickin' Man" and "Jackson." The amazing Kim Newton takes the microphone for a few songs that would have chased Linda Ronstadt out of the room.
This biography offered via a small microcosm of Cash's life is fitting on his 80th. We are treated to every facet of the performer: the prison singer, the outlaw, the man influenced by Pentecostal hymns, murder ballads... They do not ignore the cocksure, grand ole bravado balladeer years with "Man In Black" and "Busted." We see the man who helped birth rockabilly at Sun Studios with "Hey Porter" and "Walk the Line." We're offered a taste of the later years where his poignant reflections on death and age walked him to the door with "Hurt." His old buddies Kris, Waylon, and Merle are there in spirit, if not in song. Burney sings "I've Been Everywhere" and means it, just as Cash did, and whips the crowd into a frenzy as he deftly rattles off local North Carolina towns, including Saxapahaw, for which they explode.
By the time everyone is invited out to perform "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord" and "Daddy Sang Bass," no one wants this night to end. The applause is thunderous. Burney and the band are just as gracious as Cash would have been and have no intention of sending us home empty-handed. The lights dim and they take the stage again for the encore. This time, tribute is paid to a man who influenced everyone including Cash: Lead Belly. Their rendition of "Rock Island Line" is indicative of what Cash would pull out for one of his shows and their boom-chicka-boom goes faster and faster, just as the namesake's train, whipping the audience wild as the train picks up speed and trucks on, possibly never to stop.
But the train does "move it on a little further down the line." The music does stop. The lights come back up and the show ends, just as the crazy, raucous life of Johnny Cash did nearly nine years ago. But lucky for us we have musicians like the Johnny Folsom 4 and venues like the Haw River Ballroom and nights like this night, here on what would have been his 80th birthday, to make sure that his music never stops for long, that it merely keeps a-rolling...
Y'all come see me at www.reverenderyk.blogspot.com