Nearly a decade after his passing, Johnny Cash’s legend continues to grow.
Along with the film “Walk the Line” and his classic posthumous albums “American V: A Hundred Highways” and “American VI: Ain’t No Grave,” his afterlife birthed Cash’d Out. The Cash cover band, fronted by the formidable Douglas Benson, embodies the Man in Black and pays tribute to his singular outlaw country sound.
The band returns to Belly Up on Thursday, Jan 10.
“Johnny Cash doesn’t really have a genre,” Benson told me on one of their many stops in Aspen. “Johnny Cash is a genre.”
Benson and the Southern California-based outfit have been playing faithful versions of Cash’s expansive catalogue for the last seven years, earning their place as the premier Cash tribute. Benson does an impeccable job mimicking Cash’s resigned, gravelly bass-baritone while his backing trio stays true to the Tennessee Three’s light marching beats and steady-picking.
With more than 100 of Cash’s songs in their repertoire, they focus on his early Sun and Columbia Records stuff. They don’t take on his late-in-life six-album Rick Rubin-produced American Series songs. That means you’ll be sure to hear Cash’d Out play “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ring of Fire,” but their rollicking show doesn’t take on his stark renditions of “Hurt” or “Personal Jesus.”
Like a lot of us in the legion of the Cash faithful, Benson didn’t come upon Cash through a wider interest in country or rockabilly music. A hard rock and punk fan, Benson was handed a Johnny Cash tape more than a decade ago and began listening to it on loop while driving around servicing fiber optic cables.
He recalls connecting with the outlaw wisdom in the songs, the haunted tales of life on the margins, of jails and drugs, guilt and loss.
“His songs tell us a lot,” Benson says, “and that’s because he was an honest man. He was honest with his music and he also just knew how to tell a story.”
With his mussed pompadour and perpetual sneer, his funereal black attire and his high-slung guitar, Cash was an uncompromisingly individualistic figure. With fierce grimness, he told the stories of hard-living, temptation-plagued losers that presaged the punk and gangster rap movements that took hold during the course of his nearly 50-year career.
So, yeah, there was only one Johnny Cash. But Benson does sound a lot like him. He taught himself to play guitar only after friends had told him how much his singing voice sounded like Cash’s, and put together Cash’d Out from a need to put that peculiar talent to use.
Channeling Cash has its limits, though. While Benson prides himself on recreating the sound of Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three, and he does wear black and slicks his hair up, he does not come out and deliver the signature, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
Theirs is a reverent show that channels Cash’s spirit through his classic songs. For a look at a less faithful tribute, fans may want to check out the bizarre rendition of “I Walk the Line” currently going viral via YouTube by a kid who calls himself HandFartMaster. It’s a bizarre achievement - a kid playing the song, yes, by making fart sounds with his palms. It’s sure to keep your attention, sure as it’s keeping Johnny spinning in his grave.