Johnny Cash's output was as big and conflicted as his character, so why celebrate his 80th birthday in anything like a tidy fashion? This Sunday's tribute show at the Majestic Theatre promises to embrace the sprawl of his catalog, or at least try.
In addition to Milwaukee rockabilly singer Liam Ford (who occasionally performs his own Johnny Cash tribute sets), the bill features a couple generations of Madison musicians who've got different but quite solid ideas about country and folk: Josh Harty, Brown Derby, the Midwesterners, Whitney Mann and Blueheels singer Robby Schiller.
From what several performers said as they prepared their sets this month, it's clear the show will challenge those of us relative Cash lightweights who've gotten by on the Love, God, Murder box set and the American series.
One moment especially to look forward to is Brown Derby doing "One Piece At A Time," about a factory worker who steals car parts over the years until he's the proud owner of a "'49, '50, '51, '52, '53, '54, '55, '56, '57, '58 '59 automobile." It's a reminder of how funny Cash could be when he wanted to. It's also a good way to unite Brown Derby's knowledgeable country sound with its weird irreverence, both honed over a few years of regular gigs at the Crystal Corner Bar.
Harty says he intended to dig into "less-known ones for sure, maybe 'Rock Island Line' and 'Blue Train.'" The crowd can definitely expect him to play "Cocaine Blues" and share a duet with Mann.
As for Mann's own set, she says, "I'm excited to move out of my comfort zone a little and perform the epic tale 'The Legend of John Henry's Hammer.' Also during my set, I will pay a small tribute to June Carter Cash by playing the song 'Wildwood Flower.'"
The Midwesterners already have several Cash standards in their regular sets, and for Sunday's show, guitarist Richard Wiegel says they'll add "Mean Eyed Cat," "I Still Miss Someone," "Cry Cry Cry," "Long Black Veil," and "Sixteen Tons." The band has also recorded a version of "Get Rhythm" that will air Saturday on WORT's "I Like It Like That" show, which runs from 6 to 8 p.m. Wiegel says the track will also be a free download on the Midwesterners' website.
The evening will include the usual favorites, too. Wiegel says "Folsom Prison Blues" was "one of our family's 'theme' songs" when he was growing up, and The Midwesterners' repertoire already includes "Ring Of Fire" and "I Walk The Line." The only question remaining is who will step up and cover that one where Cash just talks about the Grand Canyon.