Johnny Cash was a larger-than-life working-class hero and musician who lived life with a devil on his right shoulder and an angel on his left. He had quite the life. A poor cotton picker, Air Force veteran and, after signing with Sam Phillips and Sun Records, he became 1/4th of one of the greatest rosters on any record label at a time that’s still recognized for its influence and impact. Substance abuser, faithful and unfaithful husband, champion of the down-trodden, big-hearted degenerate, celebrated star of music and the screen; he was a walking contradiction who did it all.
Since passing in 2003, Cash has exceeded icon status, as generations of folkies, rockers and people new to authentic country music realized his music was a crossing of genres and timeless reflection of the human condition with all its hardships and happiness. It is also recognized as some of the best American music of any and all decades of the modern recording era.
The touring circuit is dotted with bands honoring legendary musicians, as the real things die off quicker than we like. There’s probably a few honoring Cash, including San Diego’s Cash’d Out, performing Saturday at the Animas City Theatre.
Doug Benson –the man with the Cash voice – was not a musician, or a Cash fan, save for a slight familiarity with the staples. On a camping trip in the ’90s, after a Cash release stayed in the boombox all weekend long, Benson was hooked. “It played for four days. Nobody would take it out,” said Benson in a recent interview. “By the end of the first day I knew all the songs. I was sitting by the campfire singing and a buddy said ‘you sound like him.’ I fell in love with it.”
That led to Benson hitting up karaoke nights. He always sang Cash, and the result was always free drinks and admiration because of the vocal comparison. Unexpected unemployment led to Benson picking up a guitar and learning a few of the 3,500 songs Cash recorded. Forming a band followed, which has paid off. Cash’d Out continues to be recognized as a true representation of Cash’s legacy.
The band digs into Sun Records and Columbia Recordings era of Cash, but will also touch on the rest of his deep catalog, including later recordings with Rick Rubin, the era that resulted in scores of aging punk rockers and Generation X’ers realizing that early country music was, in fact, cool.
Johnny Cash was a working-class, man-of-the-people musician, now being represented by a working-class band. Benson has done his homework, delivering the music and some encyclopedic knowledge on the hard-living, pill-popping and god-fearing life Cash lived.
“It’s amazing to me that people spend their hard-earned money to come out and let us do Johnny Cash for them, and we in turn try to give them the best show we can,” Benson said. “On top of giving the best performance we can, we like to educate them a little bit about Johnny Cash. It’s fun and informative sometimes, too.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected].