By Kristi Kates
Ive always been a Johnny Cash fan, as were my dad and grandpa, musician Shawn Barker says of his Man in Black tribute show. Johnny Cash grew up in the same area of Arkansas as my dads family. Growing up, I remember visiting my dads side of the family and hearing Johnny being played a lot on the radio and record player; I love Johnnys voice, and the way his songs tell a story. I also love the way he always let the music speak for itself.
Barker, who was born and raised in St. Louis and still lives there today when hes not traveling, began his interest with music in school, with his first performance experience as a line drummer with the school band in 8th grade. In high school, he sang with local cover bands and learned the guitar; later, his Elvis-like good looks drew him into performing at Elvis tribute shows.
I really loved his music, and thought he was so cool, so it fit for me, Barker says.
That good fit led to Barker traveling around the U.S. for a few years, performing at Elvis tribute shows, and even winning the Elvis tribute contest at the Gibson Showcase in Nashville. Then, things took an even more interesting turn.
ELVIS TO CASH
About six years ago, a casting director for the musical The Million Dollar Quartet (a stage play built around an impromptu jam session between Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins) heard about me and asked if I wanted to audition for the part of Elvis, Barker explains, he also suggested that I audition for the Johnny Cash part. I worked on the Cash character, and went to Hollywood to audition.... and I was cast as Johnny Cash.
Barker would spend the next four months traveling back and forth to Hollywood, doing script readings and working on the Cash part for his role in the musical. During that same time period, the ambitious singer kept doing his Elvis shows.
One fateful January night in a chilly northern Wisconsin venue, Barker and his touring mates all got terrible colds, with no one being able to sing. Barker offered to perform as Johnny Cash instead of Elvis (because I thought I could sing the lower notes, he explains.) The crowd went crazy at Barkers Cash tribute, and the opportunities changed yet again for the singer.
My now-manager recorded my segment of the show (as Cash) and put a demo together to upload to his website, Barker explains, incredibly, we immediately had 10 bookings to do the Cash tribute, including the Trump Casino in Atlantic City. We sat down and wrote the script, and never looked back.
Although this meant that Barker had to withdraw from his Broadway part in The Million Dollar Quartet - which has gone on to successful runs in Chicago and New York - the Cash part seems to suit him, and hes flourished in it.
I dont really consider myself a Johnny Cash tribute artist, although thats what Ive been called, Barker says, I look at myself now as more of a singer and actor playing a role.
FROZEN IN TIME
Barkers performance as Johnny Cash today takes the audience back to seeing what Johnny Cashs shows were like back in the early 60s, and offer glimpses into other facets of the Man in Blacks career, as well.
The show really is a frozen moment in time, Barker explains, however, we also cover all aspects of Johnnys career, from the early Sun Records days through his later work with Rick Rubin. I stay in the Cash character for most of the show, telling stories about the music and about his life.
Barker performs with a full four-piece band and a backup singer, Jilla Webb, who sings harmony and covers the vocals parts of June Carter for several duets, although Barker stresses that she wasnt cast as June Carter.
Everyone dresses in black, he continues, and I wear the signature black suits that Johnny wore.
For Barker, though, this isnt merely a way to make a quick buck because of his visual resemblance and vocal abilities. Barker emphasizes that he is a Johnny Cash fan, and has a huge amount of respect for what Cash did for music.
The show is definitely done in honor of Johnny Cashs music and career, he says, If there wasnt as big a demand, I wouldnt be touring each year doing the show; but I would definitely still have some of Johnnys music in any performance that I was doing.
CHALLENGES AND REWARDS
One of the best things thats happened to him during this experience, Barker says, was performance-based, as well; he was able to actually work with one of the members of Johnny Cashs band.
A couple of years ago, I was asked by Jonathan Holiff, the son of Johnnys manager Saul Holiff, to perform with W.S. Fluke Holland (Johnny Cashs drummer from 1960 through the 90s) at a special 40th anniversary concert at Folsom Prison, Barker explains, unfortunately, the show was cancelled at the last minute, but we were still able to arrange to have W.S. join our show in Las Vegas; he was a great guy, and we are still friends today.
And one of the most challenging?
I think everything about it is difficult, Barker ponders, I have worked very hard on my voice, and mannerisms. I work on it every day. Its always a work in progress. Johnny was one of a kind, and I dont think I will ever be close to what he really was. His voice, stage presence and the way he delivered a song was so unique. We work very hard to be as close to the original as we can, and I believe we are very good at it, but no one will be able to duplicate what he did. I love everything about this show, though - the band, the music, the people, being on stage, all of it.
Being on the road for six years is hard work, but rewarding, he smiles, and at the end of the night, there is nothing I would rather be doing.
The Man in Black Show: A Tribute to Johnny Cash starring Shawn Barker, will take place at Traverse Citys Ground Zero on Friday, June 11. It will be Barkers first Traverse City appearance. Doors open at 7 p.m., show begins at 8 p.m.; advance tix are $10 plus handling charges. Find out more and purchase tickets at www.groundzeroonline.com