It’s all thanks to Joaquin Phoenix.
David James and Big River’s tribute to Johnny Cash, in Yorkton on Oct. 17 at St. Mary’s Cultural Centre, started thanks to the film Walk the Line. James was watching it with his girlfriend at the time, and started singing along to Ring of Fire.
“She said, ‘good god, you sound better as Johnny Cash than him!”
Already a musician, James was inspired to start singing like Cash, playing coffee shops around where he lived. It quickly started to get traction as people heard him sing, and how close to the original he was.
The band knows Cash inside and out, to the point where James doesn’t need to do a setlist anymore, they know the songs and the stories that go with them.
“I’ll just start telling a story, and they know what song it is by the story. Sometimes out of the blue I’ll just go ‘we’re doing this one!’”
The goal for James is to give people an authentic experience. That means the music, of course, playing a full set of Cash’s hits, but just as important when doing a Cash tribute is to get the stories behind the songs right and talk to the audience. James said that a friend of his went to a Bob Dylan concert and described it as ‘watching concrete dry’ since he didn’t talk to the audience, not a danger when you go to one of James’ shows.
“That didn’t happen at a Johnny Cash show and it certainly doesn’t happen at ours!”
This year, James has added a second member of the Highwaymen to his portfolio, starting out his show with a full set of Waylon Jennings tunes. While friends for years, they’re different singers, but James says it’s not too difficult to play both right after another.
“The trick is to try to get a Texas accent going and then slip it over to Arkansas, and try not to mix the two up.”
The Jennings part of the show is still fresh, and he believes he can do Jennings even better than Cash. One of the things that excites James about the role is that it’s a return to the electric guitar, since he played electric guitar player before he started playing as Cash.
“When I got into Johnny Cash, your job is to strum… Doing Waylon is a delight for me because I can do the electric guitar. My guitar player can smoke me off the stage any day of the week, he’s amazing, but I’m not too terrible!”
Both men were interviewed many times over the years, and between autobiographies and their recorded music, James has a lot of material to work with when he’s putting together the show. Since he’s working hard to have an authentic show, he works hard to make it accurate.
Being Cash for ten years does have consequences, and James admits that it’s actually more difficult to sound like himself anymore. Talking to James on the phone, it can sometimes sound eerily like the ghost of Cash is speaking on the other end of the line.
“I went to the gym the other day and the trainer went ‘where are you from?’ I said ‘right here’ and he said ‘you sound like you’re from the south!’”
In a decade of touring, James can remember exactly one person who didn’t like the show.
“Someone came behind and said don’t mind her, she hates everything!”