James Garner pays tribute to Johnny Cash at Capitol Theatre
CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — In Johnny Cash’s 1971 song “Man in Black” he addressed the reason he took on the moniker of the song title: “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,/Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,/I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,/But is there because he’s a victim of the times. ...”
And it’s that sentiment why 39-year-old James Garner honors the singer-songwriter who gave us such hits as “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ring of Fire” — and a slew of others.
James Garner’s Tribute to Johnny Cash will be at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at The Capitol Theatre in Chambersburg. Featuring performances and stories about country’s original superstar, Garner has been doing his homage of Cash for more than a decade.
“I started it years ago,” Garner said during a telephone interview from his Galt, Calif., home. “This is our 11th year now. We tell a lot of stories about Johnny Cash along with the music. I really like to give folks more than just the music. Between every song there’s a story about Johnny Cash. It’s certainly a concert, but it’s also kind of a history lesson.”
Garner will be playing Cash’s greatest hits, as well as some deeper cuts.
“We try to play all the hits,” he said. “The songs that if you came to a Johnny Cash concert you’d expect to hear; ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, ‘I Walk the Line’, ‘Ring of Fire,’ ‘A Boy Named Sue’, stuff like that. While we do the big ones, we like to do some that fans may not have heard of; maybe songs that weren’t top 10 hits. That’s part of the whole experience we try to provide, some history about Johnny Cash and some surprising songs that he does.”
When asked what his favorite Cash song was, Garner struggled to choose just one.
“There are so many great songs he recorded,” he said. “How do you pick one? It depends on the day. Sometimes I’ll be into an album that he may have never had a hit off of it. If you listen to ‘John R Cash,’ an album from ’74 or ’75, it didn’t have any hits on it. And another day I’ll be into ‘Live from Folsom Prison.’”
Garner, along with Cash, has the distinction of playing at Folsom Prison.
“We’ve been up there; we’ve played at the prison,” he said. “We did a show up there in Folsom not too long ago on the 50th anniversary of the album. Johnny Cash’s daughter, Tara, sang with us at that show.”
The tribute has the same instrumentation as Cash’s early live performances.
“I play rhythm guitar in the show,” Garner said. “It’s the same setup as Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three; electric guitar player, bass player and a drummer. We approach our show out of respect for Johnny Cash; it’s not a schmaltzy thing.”
Garner’s musical interests encompass Cash only.
“This is the only thing I’ve ever done in music,” he said. “Folks ask if this is some stepping stone to something greater, and the answer is no. There was nothing before this, this is all I’ve done in terms of music, and I do it because I love it. Johnny Cash’s music was, and still is, very important to me. My wonder years were filled with Johnny Cash. When my peers were all listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers and Smashing Pumpkins, I was listening to Johnny Cash.”
Garner strives for his tribute to be as authentic as possible and an exact representation of Cash’s music.
“We try not to take liberties with it; you can’t improve on perfection,” he said. “The Tennessee Three perfected a style, and we try to play it accurately. His biggest albums were live albums, and I think most people in their mind have those live versions in their head. We try to play those Cash songs the way he did it live. We work hard to get the tone and the tempo right of the song. It’s not our take on ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ or ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down,’ it’s his.”
Garner, who typically plays his shows in California, is excited about playing the East Coast.
“This is our first trip to Pennsylvania,” he said. “We’re excited to come and bring our show there. Everywhere you go there’s Johnny Cash fans looking to have a good time.”
Top photo: James Garner performs as Johnny Cash at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at The Capitol Theatre in Chambersburg, Pa. (Photo by Karen Ray Crockett)