Johnny Cash would have turned 87 years old Tuesday, February 26. His legacy will live on through his legions of fans, musicians, and friends that honor a man who remained true to who he was as a musician, an advocate, and a friend. To his fans and music critics alike, he will always be “The Man in Black”.
A full house of Johnny Cash fans came out to Caffe Lena to celebrate Cash’s life and music Sunday, February 24. The tables were full of patrons eager to eat their delicious desserts and drink their beverages as they waited to hear the music from regional musicians The Bluebillies and Marty Wendell.
Hartford, NY classic country-bluegrass group, The Bluebillies, featuring members, Melody Guarino (acoustic guitar/vocals), Mark Guarino (bass/vocals), Frank Orsini (fiddle/vocals), and Greg Bucking (lead guitar, from Sag Harbor, Long Island), opened the show. They were impressive in the way they were able to seamlessly harmonize and transition from song to song in their ten-song set. It was also interesting to learn how Cash made an impact on their lives, as shown in their music choices and the stories that they told in between songs.
For their set, the band’s focus was on covering Cash’s songs that he either covered or wrote within his last decade of life. Cash, according to Mark Guarino, was a courageous and fearless performer. He wasn’t afraid to take risks. He reached out to songwriters to write and record material that was outside his genre and comfort zone. Cash collaborated with Joe Strummer of “The Clash” to cover Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” that was turned into a country classic, covered Depeche Mode’s, “Personal Jesus”, and he covered Bruce Springsteen’s, “Highway Patrolman”.
Mark and Melody Guarino recalled an occurrence that they had with Cash during the 1980’s. At the time, Melody was a writer for a country music magazine. She had received backstage passes to attend many shows that she covered. When the Guarinos first met Cash, Mark had described him as “old and grey”. He used an oxygen tank to help him breathe. At the time, Cash was having health issues and needed two heart surgeries. Every time he performed, Cash was energetic and gave it all he had to his fans. Backstage, he collapsed due to exhaustion. To the Guarinos, having met Cash in person was incredible. To them, he was a friend of theirs. When Cash passed away, Melody wrote her song, “Johnny Cash Ain’t Gone”, a song with subtle hints of a horn one would hear from the intro of Ring of Fire, to pay homage to her friend. The song, performed to close out their set, was a fitting tribute to Cash.
Rockabilly Hall of Fame Member, Marty Wendell, featuring band members, Sean Wendell (lead guitar/vocals), Mike Schoepler (bass), and Mark Shalonis (drums), closed out the evening with a nice tribute to his friend. Wendell, who honored his friend’s birthday, also released his current CD, Rock and Roll Days: A Celebration of Sun Records, at his show.
Wendell brought his patrons back to the days of Sun Studios where one would hear Johnny Cash record Get Rhythm on April 2, 1956 to kick off the show. His set involved many historical tidbits about Cash and the songs that he had recorded and performed throughout his musical career, leading up to his passing.
In 1958, Cash had transitioned from being in Sun Records to Columbia Records. It was at Columbia Records where he recorded songs as Ring of Fire (a crowd favorite), I Still Miss Someone, and his Folsom Prison Live album. Wendell recalled the first time that he had met his friend in 1963 through a talent agent. In a dressing room, Cash had pulled out his Gibson B25 acoustic 12-string guitar out of his case and gave it to Wendell to play a song. Cash enjoyed what Wendell had performed and in return, performed a few new songs that he had written that weren’t released yet.
1968, Wendell became Cash’s opening act. “The song that got me on the Johnny Cash show”, exclaimed Wendell after performing his medley of Folsom Prison Live songs, was Hey Hey Mama. It was a song that Wendell was most proud of recording & writing; not only for its outreach that it had on listeners within Vermont and New England, but it opened a door for him to be a headlining act for his friend, Johnny Cash.
From expressing Cash’s comedic side through his expressive lyrics in A Boy Named Sue, singing harmony with son, Sean, in Sea of Heartbreak, to performing an impressive medley of memorable songs from the Folsom Prison Live album (including Folsom Prison Blues that had the crowd clapping and singing along to every lyric), Wendell and his band were able to showcase the many sides of the legendary icon that they had come to love and remember. Like the Bluebillies, Wendell recorded and performed Teardrops of Gold, an original song that had come to him in a vivid dream two years ago. He had a dream that he was at a show in Athol, NY and Johnny Cash came to him and told him to create a song using that provided title. Wendell, waking up after the dream, wrote down the title and later recorded the song for his current album, as homage to his friend.
Wendell called upon the Bluebillies to join him on the Caffe Lena stage to perform their versions of Far Side Banks of Jordan and Will the Circle be Unbroken to conclude the evening. The audience, mesmerized by the finale, clapped & sung along to a rousing rendition of Will the Circle be Unbroken all the way to the end of a memorable night.
Happy 87th Birthday to the one and only Johnny Cash from Marty Wendell and The Bluebillies. Be sure to purchase a copy of Wendell’s Rock & Roll Days: A Celebration of Sun Records, available now. Marty Wendell and the Bluebillies will be performing this show again on May 10 at The Strand Theater, Hudson Falls, NY and on July 24 at The Little Theater, Fort Edward, NY.