First Posted: 3/20/2015
Nearly a dozen years after his death, there are almost as many Johnny Cash tribute artists as there are for other celebrated music icons such as Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra.
One of the best, Shawn Barker, who has an uncanny resemblance both physically and vocally to a young Cash circa the early 1960s, will be at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts tonight with “The Man In Black, A Tribute to Johnny Cash.”
A former carpenter originally from the St. Louis area, Barker has been portraying Cash for 11 years. Before that, he spent about five years portraying Presley.
“I started as an Elvis tribute artist and I was casting for the role of Elvis in a Hollywood production of ‘Million Dollar Quartet’,” he said. “Well, the producers saw Johnny Cash in me, and I was cast as Johnny Cash instead.”
Barker spent about a year doing a character study of Cash, watching tons of videos, reading his biography and visiting his house.
“I looked at anything I could get my hands on – he had a unique way of moving his head when he sang, and a unique way of holding the guitar. Our voices are similar, deep and gravelly, but his accent was quite a bit different. I worked a long time on the phrasing, and I am always working to try to get the vocal part down.”
Although the show looks and feels like a Cash concert from the early ‘60s, Barker said he performs material from throughout the legendary singer-songwriter’s career, including duets with June Carter Cash and songs from his final recordings with producer Rick Rubin.
When asked if he has a favorite Cash song, Barker said, “It’s hard to pick a favorite as there are so many great songs, you know.
“One of my favorites that we do in the show is one that he did in his later years, ‘Bird on a Wire,’ the Leonard Cohen song,” he continued. “It’s just me and an acoustic guitar for that one, and that would definitely be my favorite from the show.”
Barker said he has always had an affinity for the music of the late 1950s and singled out Cash and his Sun Records label mates Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis as some of his favorites, along with Gene Vincent and Little Richard.
“Those guys were the pioneers of music, the astronauts of rock and roll,” he said. “My dad and his family were from the same area in Arkansas as Johnny Cash, so his music was always around when I was growing up.”
Cash (1932-2003) first came to fame in 1955 with songs like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line” on the tiny Sun label out of Memphis, the same label that launched Presley’s career in 1954. Cash went on to place 132 songs, including 13 No. 1s, on the Hot Country Songs charts from 1955 to 2003, with 48 of them also hitting the Pop charts. He was also a successful actor appearing in six theatrical releases
and dozens of TV shows and movies, and hosted “The Johnny Cash Show” for 58 episodes between 1969 and 1971. He is one of only five performers inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Asked why he thinks Cash is still popular more than 10 years after his death, Barker singled out the “Walk the Line” movie from 2005 and Cash’s late-career recordings with Rubin. “He was doing some phenomenal work right before he passed and that gave him a whole new audience.
“Everybody from 80-year-olds to 19- and 20-year-old punk rockers show up (at our show), because he resonated with so many different generations.”