The first time James Garner heard Johnny Cash, he was 11 — and he was hooked.
Cash was visiting Garner’s hometown of Hanford for a concert, and Garner’s dad was going to the show.
“And I didn’t know who Johnny Cash was,” Garner said. “I’d never heard of him before in my life.”
So he bought a tape at the music store to see what the big deal was.
“I just loved it,” he said. “It was so different than anything else that was on the radio at the time.”
It was the early 1990s, when acts like Milli Vanilli and Sinead O’Conner ruled the airwaves.
Cash didn’t sound like the pop songs that were so popular. He had a big voice, and he used it to tell stories with his music.
Garner could connect with those stories. Like Cash, he grew up on a cotton farm — though technology meant the work wasn’t as backbreaking as it was when Cash was a kid. Garner loved the rural and agrarian themes of the Man In Black’s music, the simplicity.
“Something in my head just clicked, and I fell in love with it,” he said.
But it wasn’t until he was living in Lodi that the idea for James Garner’s Tribute to Johnny Cash was born. Garner, who now lives in Galt, got together with bassist Rick Duncan and drummer Nick Auriemmo, both of Lodi, and guitarist Denny Colleret of Vacaville to create the show.
They learned to re-create Cash’s signature boom-chicka-boom sound, and began performing at a local bar, then some festivals.
Now they travel all over the country, as far as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin and Illinois.
“Twelve years later, it’s a little hard to believe,” Garner said.
Along with the talent of his band, Garner credits the unique nature of their show for turning them into a national act.
“For me, being a really big Johnny Cash fan, I always wanted this to be not just a cover band,” he said.
Beyond just the music, Garner wants fans who turn out for his shows to understand their man. That means not just nailing the sound of each song, but sharing the story behind it, too.
There is a lot of storytelling between each song, he said, including who wrote each song, the inspiration behind it, what was going on in Cash’s life when it was written, where he performed it, and more.
“For me, that’s really important. I want folks to leave knowing more than they walked in the door about Johnny,” he said.
Garner doesn’t set out to impersonate Cash. When he talks about the Man In Black, it’s as a fan, not in character.
“I’m not Johnny Cash, I’m a guy who grew up listening to his music,” he said.
That said, touring has given Garner and his bandmates a few stories of their own. One summer, Southwest Airlines’ computer crashed. Their flight was delayed, and delayed, and finally canceled because the airline couldn’t figure out where their pilot was.
“It was pretty chaotic. I mean, there were people there on their honeymoon, people going to cruise in Alaska. People were crying,” Garner said.
They were due for two shows in Seattle, so they went downstairs, rented an SUV, and drove all night.
“We barely made it,” Garner said.
But they did, and they performed for their fans. Garner once drove through a winter storm on the East Coast — getting stuck in the snow twice — until he found an airport that could fly him home for another performance.
“That was crazy, because there was no one on the road, either,” he said. Then, after a pause: “The roads were desolate because no sane person would be on the road.”
Garner still listens to Cash’s music regularly, when he’s not performing it. He loves that you can’t pigeonhole Johnny Cash — he wrote across several genres, including country, rock, folk, gospel, rockabilly.
“There is a Johnny Cash sound. I’m not sure you could say that about really any other musician,” he said.
And he never gets tired of sharing that enthusiasm with other Johnny Cash fans. It’s not a job, he said.
“You just get lost in the music,” he said.