The Man in Black gained a worldwide following throughout his career and since his death in 2003, his iconic status has grown even further.
His own personal life contained as much drama as a Hollywood blockbuster, so it was no surprise that his story was transferred to the big screen in 2005 with the man himself performed by a very convincing Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line.
The music of Cash has inspired many throughout the world, including local musician JP Mac who performs a world class tribute to the music icon with his stage show Cash Returns.
The Strabane man has taken his show across the country performing in front of sell out crowds and in the process, managing to gain a following of his own. One such fan just so happens to be W. S. ‘Fluke’ Holland, Cash’s own drummer who was completely blown away when he first heard the tribute act, deciding to feature JP on his Tennessee radio show.
Cash Returns will be pitching up at the Millennium Forum next month and we caught up with the main man to get the lowdown on his award winning show.
I started by asking the Irish Cash if he could remember his first introduction to the music of the Man in Black and how the act came about. “It was ‘Ring Of Fire’ in an old Levi’s TV advertisement” said JP. “Then it was upon hearing ‘Hurt’ for the first time that started the real interest in him for me.
“When I was taking part in a local singing competition I heard ‘Hurt’ on a jukebox at a local bar so I decided to print off the lyrics and chords in the original key and try it at the competition where our team ended up winning. Everyone commented on how much I sounded like Cash. It was from that point I was encouraged to learn other Cash songs.
“I have been in a few different bands since 2003 while doing the Cash thing, however it was around five years ago that the Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast approached me after seeing us online and asked if we would be interested in putting on a show there.
“I knew a few guys who I had been playing with periodically here and there, and so I asked my sister Caroline to learn a few songs for the role of June Carter to see how it would go. Our first ever show sold out in a couple of days so we returned the following January for two more shows which sold out immediately. From then on we gave the show it’s name ‘Cash Returns’ which now includes myself, Kim Crumley as June Carter, Les Thompson on rhythm guitar, vocals, mandolin, harmonica, Micky Goodman on percussion and David McGaughey on lead guitar, vocals, trumpet and Colin Nee on bass.”
The Strabane musician revealed that he was a little nervous about taking on the icon’s music at first. “Unlike a band that have original material, we have to go out and recreate the music, sound and performance of a music icon who has legions of fans all over the world. They take their music seriously, and so are watching with a keen eye to make sure that you’re doing justice to their hero” said JP.
“It was very daunting at the beginning but now I’m quite comfortable as I know that I’m not trying to replace Johnny Cash, there will never be another one. I am a tribute, not an impersonator. I tip my hat to his mannerisms and quirks, however I put my own slant and my interpretation of the Man In Black so that audiences with a keen eye will notice certain nods to Cash, whether it be the way I hold the guitar, or tilt my head and use my voice. Of course I have to dress in black as well.
“Thankfully our show is going from strength to strength at the moment with people still coming from all over to see us. We have predominantly been playing in Northern Ireland over the past few years however now we have started to push down south more and over to the UK, and even over to Holland where we had a sell out crowd to play to on St.Patrick’s Day earlier this year. We’re going back there in August for a big festival which we can’t wait for. Hopefully we’ll get the show to the States as well.
The band has had a slight change in the lineup this year, with Kim Crumley taking over the role of June Carter on vocals. “Yeah Kim took over as June from my sister Caroline in February of this year due to family commitments” revealed JP.
“Caroline has a young family that needs her more than we do at the minute. We knew from the first song during the first audition that Kim was a strong contender as she had a very strong voice, quite similar to Caroline’s and can sing all the songs in the same key so that was great for the rest of the band as well” laughs JP.
“June Carter exuded a warmth to her audiences when she performed and that was an evident trait as well when choosing Kim."
Cash Returns - Jackson (Live from Crumlin Road Jail)
It doesn’t get much bigger than receiving an endorsement from W.S Fluke Holland, who was Johnny Cash’s own drummer from 1959 until his death in 2003. “That was weird” admitted JP. “I got in touch with him when I found out he had a radio show in Tennessee with his co-host Ron Haney.
“I chanced my arm and winged off two mp3’s, Hurt and Folsom Prison Blues, in an email to see what they thought. I then received an email from them saying that they loved the tracks but would need a hard copy on CD to play it on air. So I sent them off the tracks and also a bit about myself. They then featured the songs on their show in their entirety and W.S. Fluke Holland gave us gushing praise causing the hairs on my arm to stand up. We’ve stayed in touch with talk of us heading to the States and working together.”
Speaking about which tracks are favourites among the crowds, JP revealed: “Ring Of Fire is obviously one that gets a big reaction at shows” said the local musician. “However each audience are different. As Cash’s career was so vast he had a lot of songs out there and so people of different age groups react to different songs. ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, ‘Hurt’, ‘Walk The Line’, ‘A Boy Named Sue’ are all songs that manage a big response - ‘Cocaine Blues’ manages to rile be up as well.
“I always try and remember that each individual in the crowd has their own favourite Cash song, the one they listen to on repeat at home, the one that's never off in their car or their earphones so we give every song the attention it needs to make sure we do it justice.”
You can catch JP Mac as Johnny Cash in his award winning show, Cash Returns at the Millennium Forum on Friday 1st June. Book your tickets here.