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When Johnny Cash speaks to you in your dreams, you'd better pay heed. That's exactly what Mark Stuart did after several nocturnal visits from the Man in Black, who spoke to the San Diego musician about, well, stuff, and also about playing country music.
"Yeah, they were weird dreams. Don't ask me why it was Johnny Cash," Stuart recalls. "He'd just come in and talk to me, that's about it."
Stuart put two and two together and made the most of these somnolent sit-downs with the boss man of boom-chicka-boom. Regardless of whether Cash's presence was caused by a tequila overdose or an undersmoked slice of brisket, it made Stuart think hard about the kind of twangy music he had just started playing under his own name in small Southern California bars in the mid-1990s, backed by an upright bassist and drummer.
Stuart by then had already done the alt-rock thing with a band called X Defenders, dabbled in blues and then did another couple of years in community college, or, as he puts it, "another in a long series of diversions to avoid actual responsibility." But there remained a love for the aging superstars of country music, the kind of stuff his mom played at home, and for no real reason, he began writing country-flavored melodies and got his trio together. And then, to paraphrase Hoagy Carmichael, through peaceful dreams he saw the road before him.
"I was drinking at a bar, and I'm listening to this old country music," says Stuart. "And I'm thinking, well, people used to say that country music was the bastard son of rock 'n' roll. And it's funny now, how bands that play in the older style today are suddenly like these alt-country heroes. And Johnny Cash is the most dangerous country outlaw there is."
Faster than you can say "I Walk the Line," Stuart had a much cooler name for his project than plain ol' Mark Stuart: Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash. Yup, it has a hell of a nice ring to it. The only catch, of course, was making peace with the JC of country music himself.
"This sounds almost like it's too good to be true, but soon after that, Johnny was in San Diego filming this Renegade TV show, and I somehow was able to get in there, knock on the door of his trailer and gave a tape and a letter to his assistant. Then one day the phone rings, and it's him. Just like he sounded on those old concert shows, in the deep voice, 'This is Johnny Cash.'"
According to Stuart, who doesn't mind at all being referred to as the Main Bastard of his band, Cash said that he had decided to go against the wishes of some in his inner circle who were pretty pissed about the whole thing. "He was cool with it. He said it was one of the funniest things he ever heard." (Lord only knows what litigation might have clogged dockets had Stuart experienced nocturnal visitations from Conway Twitty or, worse, David Crosby.)
It would be a really crappy story if the Bastard Sons sucked, but we can report that they certainly have some very credible chops on their major-label debut, Walk Alone. The lyrics show promise but need development in order to stand out from the alt-country pack. When Stuart can move past the phase of being a darn fine re-interpreter (covers of Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings" and Dale Watson's "Truckstop in La Grange" certainly stand out), he'll be able to move up to the league occupied by the Blue Rodeos or BR5-49s of the world.
The future certainly looks good. Cash's son, John Carter Cash, also has taken a fancy to their music. He invited the Bastards over to his Hendersonville, Tennessee, studio during a short break after a July gig in Memphis to lay down some new tracks.
Stuart is happy to get away from the Golden State, both to play more often and also, as the hip-hoppers say, to represent.
"San Diego has such a cover band attitude, there really isn't much chance of bookings for this kind of music that people in Texas get to hear all the time. [Also], if people want to say you can't really have the credibility to play this raw-sounding stuff if you're from California, that's okay with me," says Stuart. "The folks I've been most influenced by in the last few years are the Texas troubadours like Joe Ely or Jimmie Dale Gilmore." And we might add that being from California certainly hasn't hurt Chris Isaak's career much.
In fact, the only negative vibes Stuart has received have more to do with the mental picture associated with the band's name in relation to the kind of music it plays.
"Some people expect us to be some Mike Ness punk band with those messed-up cowboy hats and tattoos, or they go the other way, and expect us to be a Johnny Cash tribute band, and they're screaming 'Ring of Fire' all night," Stuart says. "I've had some threats from people saying they love Johnny Cash and they're gonna kick my ass, but it hasn't happened in these five years."
Perhaps they've had dreams of the Man in Black, too, wherein he intoned to the self-proclaimed protectors, "Don't take your guns to town, son. Leave them boys alone."