James Garner was 13 years old in 1991 when his dad headed out to attend a concert at the Fox Theater in Hanford. Young Garner was intrigued. Who was this big name artist performing in his hometown, and why did his dad want to see the man sing live?
The next day, the teenager picked up a tape: “The Fabulous Johnny Cash,” recorded in 1958. Garner played the first song, “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” and he was hooked.
“It was so stark and different from what was on the radio at the time, from the bare instrumentation to the story-style lyrics,” said Garner, now 35. “I probably burned up the tape, it got so much play.”
That snap conversion to a Johnny Cash superfan led Garner to a side gig that is beginning to edge out his day job in public affairs. He’s the frontman for the Tribute to Johnny Cash, coming to Hutchins Street Square in Januar 2014.
“I’m really excited to be back in Lodi. This is where it all started. Lodi is the hometown for this show, and the crowds at Hutchins are really fun,” he said.
Playing a show in Lodi is like coming home for the band that was born at an open mic night at a Cherokee Lane bar. Garner lives in Galt with Mandy Garner, his wife of nine years.
Throughout childhood, Garner wasn’t listening to contemporary music. He was reveling in all the Cash material and tracks he could get his hands on. That passionate fan spirit led Garner to choose a couple of Cash songs while singing karaoke at O’Reilly’s Pub with the house band at an open mic night. Garner sang “Folsom Prison Blues,” and was met with cheers.
“Folks seemed to enjoy it, and the band wanted to set up a Cash tribute show,” said Garner. “They said, ‘Let’s do this. You obviously know all these songs.’”
The band includes Denny Colleret of Vacaville, who was among the original members at the group’s inception. Rick Duncan of Lodi joined in 2009 as a bass player, and drummer Nick Auriemmo signed on last summer. As a group, they play 50 shows a year.
Garner is a self-taught singer and guitarist who picked up his musical skills by immersing himself in Cash’s music.
“I wanted to learn these songs I was listening to,” he said. “I had a guitar I didn’t know how to play, so I learned a few chords and picked it up by ear. For me it’s a love. I love the music.”
Garner’s superfan status means the show is a little different from other tribute bands. It’s not a straight cover. Instead, Garner infuses history and anecdotes about Cash’s life and musical career, as well as tidbits on how certain songs were written.
“We do all the big hits, of course, then pull out some of the lesser-known songs,” he said. “His career was so diverse, and his music so prolific. He’d go in the studio and just crank out albums.”
Picking a favorite tune is nearly impossible. Garner especially enjoys singing “Folsom Prison Blues” and the iconic “Walk the Line.” But it’s the sparseness of the songs and hearing the evolution of Cash’s sound over the years that make the artist come alive for the tribute singer.
“I remember thinking, ‘This guy is quite a character.’ Some of the songs are more novelty and have a story or are funny. But others are about trains, Americana, prison mystique and rural life. There is so much to mine,” said Garner.
One song from a 1973 album called “Any Old Wind That Blows” holds a special place with Garner. It reached No. 3 on the music charts, then fell out of popularity. Most folks don’t remember it, says Garner, but it’s one of his favorites.
No song can compare to the moment Garner met and shook hands with the Man in Black. He was a freshman in high school, about a year after he first discovered Cash’s music. The country star was playing in Fresno, so the teen convinced his mother to take him to the show.
“I was by far the youngest person at the show,” said Garner. “Afterward, I ran backstage to the bus as he was getting on, and I was able to get right there.”
With a shaking, squeaky voice, Garner said he was Cash’s biggest fan and shook his hand. Cash smiled and said, “Well, I’m glad to know you,” and got on the bus.
“Driving home, I remember thinking, ‘I’m never going to wash this hand,’” said Garner.