Paying tribute to the music and legend of Johnny Cash

There aren’t that many truly timeless American icons in the music industry, but Johnny Cash makes the list. The subject of an award-winning film, numerous documentaries and a career that spanned about a half-century, his classic tracks are still played on the radio, in bars and on movie soundtracks.

Thanks to James Garner’s critically acclaimed tribute, the sounds and stories of Johnny Cash will hit the stage like a train a-rolling on March 25 at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center.

Despite being too young to revel in Cash’s most successful years, Garner still became an ardent fan around the age of 12, when Cash performed near Garner’s hometown of Fresno.

“His best radio days were long past by then,” Garner said. “But I fell in love with it,” he said of Cash’s signature sound. Garner explained that country music was hailing Garth Brooks and other kids his age were listening to the likes of Nirvana and Radiohead, but he studied Cash through his teen years.

Originally, it was just an appreciation of Cash’s music; Garner didn’t plan on forging a career fronting a tribute band to the “Man in Black.”

“It happened by accident,” Garner said, explaining that he was singing karaoke about 17 years ago and things just grew from there.

Garner, who grew up on a farm, said he gravitated toward the rural themes in Cash’s songs.

While the brunt of the show is focused on the music, Garner said he also takes some time to get into “the mythology of Cash.” Garner said Cash used to say, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story,” so some people have held misconceptions about the singer for years.

“The greatest myth is that he was a convict,” Garner said. While Cash did have some run-ins with the law, he was only at Folsom and San Quentin prisons as an entertainer, not an inmate.

Garner added that, as years have lapsed, Cash’s impact on the culture is somewhat forgotten.

“In the 60s and 70s, he was influential and ubiquitous in the American ether.”

Garner recalled that Cash used his TV program, a hit variety show, to unite various voices, inviting Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Monkees and gospel singers to the stage.

He said many songwriters still profess “how influential he was to their lives.”

“That’s what I loved; I love educating people about Johnny Cash,” Garner said.

Garner has even ventured into San Quentin and Folsom prisons for performances and said he witnessed how “they searched everything and listed everything we had with us, including the cables.” He said he was told that the outfits he and the band wore were deemed “the most valuable thing” because in the wrong hand, they could lead to an escape.

“I first heard it at San Quentin when I was in junior high, 25 years after its original release,” Garner said. “I imagine my reaction was the same as those who heard it in ’69. It was raw, in your face, and real. It didn’t have the polish of a studio recording. It was rough around the edges, just like At Folsom Prison before it.”

The performance is a straight-forward tribute, with no duets or variations. Garner works with musicians taking up the role of Cash’s very own Tennessee Three bandmates — and doesn’t shy away from the most popular tracks such as “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line.”

Garner and the band have been featured on PBS and show the talent to record their own original material, but he says he’s not interested to steer away from paying tribute to Cash, which he’s been doing since 2007.

“We’re excited to bring our show back to Rohnert Park,” Garner said. “We were last in Rohnert Park in 2018, and we know that there are a lot of Johnny Cash, country and folk fans in the area. We can’t wait to see them all again.”

“I was 12 years old when I heard my first Johnny Cash song as we drove on Highway 198 from Visalia to Hanford,” Garner said. “It was ‘Don’t Take Your Guns to Town’ and I was hooked. A few years later, I saw him in concert in Fresno and got to meet him backstage following the show. Shaking hands with Johnny Cash is still one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.”

A quarter of a century following the meeting with Cash, Garner continues to pay tribute to his musical hero. In addition to playing shows across the country, Garner’s group has released three full-length albums, making them the most recorded and published Johnny Cash tribute show in the nation.

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