With impresario Gordon Cantiello's new tribute show The Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash at The Waiting Room, it's only natural to consider what makes the singer-songwriter of the title so enduring.
The king of hard-scrabble, honky-tonk infused with gospel, country, folk, blues and rock, became a living legend with his Man in Black and Folsom Prison Blues persona. His soulful music fit his wayfaring life. In his last decade Cash enjoyed a renaissance among artists and fans across the musical spectrum. The Reader solicited local musicians and music lovers to reflect on his work and found many admirers, but only Brenda Allen, aka Brenda Allacher, counted him as a friend. She also jammed with Cash and played on the same bill as the late star.
As a young vocalist-guitarist Allen was befriended by Cash, whose generosity she fondly remembers. Their memorable first meeting happened in 1958 when she auditioned for a guest spot on ABC-TV's Ozark Jubilee at the Jewell Theatre in Springfield, Mo. She was 18 with some modest credits. Cash was 26 and already an established star.
"I did my audition and they said I could stay and see the show, which was starting in about an hour. My girlfriend and I were looking at three guys sitting in front of us. They weren't regulars on the show."
A dark-featured man in a black shirt caught Allen's eye.
"I said, 'God, he's good looking,' and my girlfriend said, 'All three of them are good looking.' Yeah, I wonder who that is?"'
In the meantime the Jubilee's version of a Hee-Haw couple, Uncle Cyp and Aunt Sap Brasfield, were rehearsing. A live elephant was part of the act. The animal did some tricks. Then the beast decided to pee.
“It sprayed 20 rows out. All the performers were in their costumes already. Everybody got hit. We were soaked," Allen recalls. "We dived under the seats and I saw these long legs go running over top and I said, 'Is he done yet?' And this deep male voice said, 'No, you better stay down there,' and he went on by me. Finally I peeked up and they were putting saw dust all over the place, wiping seats down and I heard that same voice say, 'Well, how high is the water, mama?' I said, 'It's two feet high and rising.' It was Johnny Cash.
"I popped up and said, 'Are you staying across the street?' 'Yeah," he said. 'We're staying there, too, you want me to bring you a shirt?' 'Hell, yes,' and he gave me the key to his room and I got him a clean shirt.
"We sat and played guitars that night and talked about country music. That's what started it. He was a perfect gentleman."
After returning to her home in Lincoln, Neb. Allen stayed in touch with Cash. "I wrote him a letter and I got a letter back. I set him a picture of myself with my Fender Telecaster and he sent me his first song book. Without me even knowing it he sent my picture to Fender. That's the kind of guy he was. Fender offered me a contract to model."
She never signed. Instead, she landed with Marty Martin, who gained fame as Boxcar Willie. In 1962 the Marty Martin Show Featuring Brenda Allen opened for Cash at Lincoln's Pershing Auditorium and Omaha's Ciivc Auditorium. Later, as part of the Taylor Sisters, she was on the same program with Cash at a 1964 Wichita, Kansas show also featuring June Carter, Minnie Pearl, the Statler Brothers and Lefty Frizzell. “I’d say we were in damn good company."
"Wonderful," is how she describes sharing the stage with Cash. "He had such a charisma about him. You just felt there was something special about this guy."
His interest in her career continued. "I told him I was looking to join a band and he said, 'Why not get your own band together?' He told me, 'You've got a damn good voice.' He and his lead guitar player Luther Perkins sat me down and said, 'Brenda, stick with country music, you're going to make it.'" The elephant anecdote always connected Allen and Cash.
As for his troubled personal life, she says, "Around the time June Carter entered the picture I started noticing things about John from when I first him. I knew of the wildness." Depression and addiction took their toll in "the bad years." Allen's been there. At 74 the recovering alcohol is a karaoke regular. She sings some Cash tunes. His melancholy, redemptive ballads work well with female interpreters. Just ask Erika Hall, who performs Cash standards in Ring of Fire.
"He was real, he was gritty, he was flawed, he spoke for all of us who make mistakes, who feel pain, and he had a very unique gift of being able to tell that story through music," Hall says. "He gives us something to grab onto when we feel like we are alone in our pain. I find it interesting how well some of those songs do transfer to a female singer. It just shows you how much emotion was present in that music."
Hall, who essayed Patsy Cline in a recent Cantiello-produced show, says the Cash canon lives on because "he was able to speak to multiple generations in the same way." She adds, "Pain is pain, joy is joy – those emotions don’t change from generation to generation and Johnny Cash was able to send those emotions through his music in a way every human can identify with. He spoke to us. That’s his legacy."
That legacy cuts across boundaries performer Billy McGuigan (Rave On) says.
"There are very few artists who ascend above the labels used to classify artists. We love to say Elvis is the King of Rock, Michael Jackson is the King of Pop, Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings are undeniably country. But The Man in Black? He's above all that. He started as an early rock artist, became a country icon, a television personality and influenced the undertones of rap music.
"There's something about that voice. That deep baritone resonates the soul and goes beyond his just singing a song. Add in the driving rhythm of the Tennessee Three and you've got a magical formula."
"The legacy of Johnny Cash stretches across seven decades," Pacific Street Blues host Rick Galusha says. "His influence was felt at the onset of rock and roll at Sun Studios and into the new century with his historic American recordings with Rick Rubin. Any artist able to stay-on-top while maintaining a high level of artistic integrity is bound to be influential."
"Who hasn't been inspired by Mister Cash?" asks Rainbow Recording studio owner and Paddy O Furniture band leader Nils Anders Erickson, "He wrote and sang about what he knew and you believed him. It wasn't just a song, it was the truth. Love the man, love the music."
The Ring of Fire cast also includes Sue Gillespie Booton, D. Kevin Williams, Thomas Gjere and Zach Little. Cantiello directs with musical direction by Mark Kurtz and Vince Krysl.
The show's remaining play dates are Saturday, August 9 at 1, 5 and 8 p.m. and Sunday, August 10 at 1 and 5 p.m. The Waiting Room is at 6212 Maple Street. For tickets, call 402-706-0778.
For details, visit performingartistsrepertorytheatre.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.