Johnny Cash wore black because he liked it. He still does. It means something to him. He wrote in his autobiography, “It’s my symbol of rebellion — against a stagnant status quo, against our hypocritical houses of God, against people whose minds are closed to others’ ideas.” You could say all those same things about his music. Bands from every end of the spectrum connect with the Man in Black’s outsider status. They relish his honesty, his darkness. Cash isn’t kitsch classic country. He didn’t have anything to do with the Dukes of Hazzard.
Brian Deer, singer and guitarist of the local alt-country favorite Citzens Band, will be part of the tribute to Cash at Birdy’s.
On May 7, several local bands will pay tribute to Cash at Birdy’s, turning in their versions of his songs. Don’t expect a full night of twang and tweeter. The lineup includes a range of bands like America Owns The Moon, Citizens Band, The Common, Vinyl Shriner, Drunken Deacons and Nimbus. They’ll each play three or four of Cash’s songs. Birdy’s has organized similar tribute nights for Elvis and the Beatles. “It just seemed like Johnny Cash was due,” said Jeff Sample, who handles bookings at the bar on North Keystone Avenue. “Cash has never been anything close to conventional. He’s the outlaw of country music. That’s why he appeals to such a wide audience.” Cash gained a new crop of fans with his American Records albums, in which he covered an eclectic assortment of modern rock and roots music. Now, this local lineup hopes to return the favor. “He’s covered everybody — like Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden,” Sample said of Cash. “It’s not hard to swallow a punk band covering his stuff.” Not at all. Check out Social Distortion’s 1990 version of “Ring of Fire” for proof. In order to keep that song from coming up 16 times Wednesday night, Sample is working with the bands to mix it up and play a wide cross section of Cash’s songs. Citizens Band does “Ring of Fire” as part of its usual set. “Johnny Cash’s music is all heart. His tough-as-nails delivery is as sincere as is his softer side,” said Brian Deer, a singer and guitarist in the local alt-country favorite. “For me, I think the reason he stands out above many artists is his humanity. So many musicians forget that singing isn’t about trying to be a character. It’s about letting who you are shine through. When people say they like Johnny Cash, they’re most likely commenting on his personality whether they realize it or not. When Johnny Cash sings, his warm personality shines through.” Singer and guitarist Steve Hayes of pop-influenced The Common calls Cash a “national treasure.” “My parents were big Johnny Cash fans, so his music was probably the first I heard as a baby. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know who Johnny Cash was and his songs,” Hayes said. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize what a vital and powerful voice he has as an American conscience.” Deer and Hayes both see this night as a great way to expose their fans to Cash and Cash’s fans to them. “These events are a great chance for people to get to know local acts,” Deer said. “People get to sample lots of bands at once. Bands do familiar songs but play them in a way that makes it their own. I’m sure others will do Cash tunes that are less familiar and, in turn, introduce the song to a whole new audience.” “We love these theme and tribute shows. We’ve done a lot of them and always have fun seeing what we can do with classic material,” Hayes said. “Obviously, it’s also a prime way to get to know local bands a little better. I know, personally, when I’ve seen bands do well on a tribute show, I’ve become curious about what their own material sounds like.” Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Bands start taking the stage about an hour later. Admission is $5.