“Understand Your Man”: An Interview with James Garner

James Garner’s Tribute to Johnny Cash celebrates the life and music of the legendary “Man in Black”. Garner and his band faithfully recreate Cash’s biggest hits and presents historical accounts and personal anecdotes about Cash’s life.

JamesGarner's JohnnyCash by Kial James color
James Garner – Photo by Kial James

Since 2008, Garner and his band have performed more than 350 shows, including a special show at Folsom State Prison in 2008 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Cash’s infamous live album recorded behind prison walls. The band then returned to Folsom, California, in January 2018 to perform two sold-out concerts on the 50th anniversary of the prison concert.

We sat down with Garner to talk about the show, and what makes Johnny Cash America’s most beloved singing storyteller

Tell us about what first drew you to Johnny Cash.

I discovered Johnny Cash when I was 11 years old. The first song I heard was “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” a musically sparse ballad about a young cowboy “who grew restless on the farm.” It contained many of the signature elements found in most of Cash’s recordings. The vocals were big, powerful and right in your face. The instrumentation was sparse and rhythmic, supportive of those vocals. The song, based on an old Irish Folk tune, was a story told in two-and-a-half minutes. For me, it was so different than any 1990s contemporary music – country or pop. As I devoured more Cash material through my teenage years, everything about it just resonated with me. Growing up on a California cotton farm myself – and by no means, working nearly as hard as he and his family did in northeast Arkansas –  his songs about agrarian, rural life spoke to me.

How did this show develop?

Little did I know at the time, the show developed in my teenage years. I had dozens of Johnny Cash tapes and CDs that I pretty much listened to exclusively. When my peers were listening to Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam, Weezer, etc., I was jamming “Big River,” “I Got Stripes,” and “Hey Porter” on my Sony Walkman. I had VHS tapes of Cash’s television shows and concerts. I read his autobiographies and other biographical works, studying his career and life. Simply put, I was a big fan. I sang his songs in the car, at school, and at home. When I started playing guitar, I wanted to learn the Johnny Cash songs that I had fallen in love with, so I played along with his music, learning chords and trying to figure out how his thumb seemed to be everywhere at the same time.

Fast forward to my 20s. I was singing Johnny Cash songs one night at a karaoke bar and met some musicians who said we should do something together. Long story short, we put a band together (my first and only) and I applied all the information I had read, listened to, and watched over the years into this show. It’s hard to believe we are in our 11th year and have played more than 500 shows across the country.

Johnny Cash is definitely a larger-than-life figure. What do you do capture that energy when you perform?

No doubt, and so the first thing I do is not pretend to be Johnny Cash. Our show is not an impersonation, but truly a tribute to the “Man in Black” with songs and stories. Never once, have I said “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” or presented the show from a first-person perspective. The energy is in the music and we work very hard and take very seriously presenting his music the way he and The Tennessee Three performed it, especially during their live performances.

CashTribute-JamesGarner+band by Mike Melnyk
Left to Right: Denny Colleret, James Garner, Rick Duncan, Nick Auriemmo – Photo by Mike Melnyk

What’s the rehearsal process like before you go on tour?

Good question! I don’t have an answer because there isn’t one. We’ve been doing this so long together, that it’s just part of us. Every now and then we add some new songs, but we don’t get together ahead of time to rehearse. We each know what we must do on the song and we’ll run through it a few times during sound check before some shows. When we feel good about it, we’ll add it to the show.

What’s your favorite part of performing for a live audience?

It’s hard to pin down one favorite thing. I love the fact there are people in the audience every night who grew up listening to Johnny Cash and saw him live in concert, perhaps as early as 1955. Folks have said that it takes them back to that time or a special moment in their life –  their first love, military service, riding in the car with their dad, a date-night to a Johnny Cash show, etc. I love when the audience recognizes and applauds the first notes to “I Walk the Line” or “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” They’re not applauding us. They’re expressing their love for Johnny Cash and the impact his music had in their lives. I can relate and I’m right there with them.

Do you have any pre-show superstitions or rituals before going on stage?

I don’t think have any superstitions. The closest thing to rituals would be drinking warm tea, liberal applications of hairspray and pacing backstage a few minutes before going on.

If your show was an animal, what animal would it be?

I don’t really know… I like researching and learning and have tried to apply that to our show. Maybe a hound dog with a good nose. Or to borrow a Cash lyric, “gone as a wild goose in winter.” We usually do about 25-30 songs in a 2-hour show and it just seems to fly by when we’re on stage.

What do you hope we walk away from the show feeling?

My big hope is that people leave feeling a love for Johnny Cash and his music. I hope that when folks get home, they pull out their Johnny Cash records, CDs or tapes and fall in love with his music all over again. And if they don’t have any of his material, I hope they download it on iTunes, Amazon, etc.

Then I have different hopes for different people. For the Johnny Cash super fans, I hope they notice the attention to detail in the music – the two different leads we play in “Folsom Prison Blues,” one in the style of Luther Perkins (pre-1968) and the other as Bob Wootton played it (post-1968), the Carl Perkins style picking in “A Boy Named Sue,” the W.S. Holland “Ring of Fire” drum fills of the 1980s, and the Marshall Grant tone from the 1965 Epiphone Newport “Batwing” our bass player uses.

For those less familiar with Cash’s music, I hope they recognize just how impactful it was – and still is – for people in this country and worldwide. His songs speak to themes endemic to the human condition: Love, pain, humor, struggle, triumph and redemption.

I also want folks to know that Cash was a powerful force in music and the arts. I think people know that, but I don’t think it can be overstated. His impact and reach transcended the “country music” genre. He supported up-and-coming songwriters and performers, provided inspiration to some of the greats, was a guardian-like figure tasked with preserving the relevance of music icons who came before him, and gave a voice to underrepresented social causes. It’s evident in his musical relationships with Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash, Shel Silverstein, Rodney Crowell, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Tom Petty, Lead Belly, Ervin T. Rouse, The Carter Family, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Carl Perkins, Peter La Farge, and many more.

Thank you for your time.

My pleasure! We look forward to the shows at the Curtis Theatre!

New Logo Color

James Garner’s Tribute to Johnny Cash performs May 19-20. Saturday at 3pm and 8pm. Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are on sale now. Visit our website or call the Box Office at 714-990-7722 Tues-Fri 12PM-3PM.

Have questions? Contact us! 

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