Walking the Line

A spiritual tribute to Johnny Cash by local outlaw country band the Trophy Husbands rings appropriate

After several years of tributes and eulogies, with his work in vogue and a video meditation on his aging mesmerizing MTV viewers, Johnny Cash did about the most rebellious thing he could last Friday morning. He died.

The symbolism -- legendarily flawed man finds redemption time and time again and then unexpectedly meets his maker -- wasn't lost on some faithful observers, who spent the weekend contextualizing the country singer's life and vast body of work. Sample comment: "Country radio stations told me he's really not relevant to their format," said longtime Phoenix concert promoter Danny Zelisko, recalling the difficulty he faced finding support for a 1995 Cash show at Graham Central Station. "You fucking assholes! Johnny Cash is the reason you have a format! When Johnny Cash puts out a record, that's news."

The most tactile local take on Cash's story and music, however, took place in Tempe. There, an added dose of serendipity blessed the Trophy Husbands. The "outlaw" country band's long-planned CD release party for its new album Walk With Evilhappened to be scheduled for Friday night at Long Wong's.

"My favorite was when I saw Johnny Cash in an episode of Columbo," guitarist and singer Dave Insley joked to the crowd gathered inside the tiny roadhouse. "That was pretty bitchin'."

Fronted by Insley and fellow guitarist and singer Kevin Daly, the Trophy Husbands' music lovingly embraces the galloping boom-chigga-boom rhythm and stern narratives that defined Cash's style. It's a style that, combined with the Cash bass-baritone vocal inflections, arguably influenced all rock 'n' roll made after 1955.

His string of American Recordings albums since 1994, filled with covers of everything from the Eagles' hokey "Desperado" to Soundgarden's thundering "Rusty Cage," demonstrated Cash's effect wonderfully. Still, the Cash connection rarely comes as strongly as it does with a band like the Husbands, right on down to the singers' deep, articulate voices, and passionate and at-times-unruly rhythm guitar playing.

The band's tribute came about two-thirds of the way through its alternately twangy and heavy set. Insley, looking somber, proclaimed that "nobody in this room" could have missed the news by now. He proceeded to spout the requisite superlatives -- "amazing artist," "American hero." And then the band tossed a change-up, performing, of all things, a spiritual that Insley had written for Walk With Evil called "Grace."

"This is a song I wrote I want to send up to Johnny Cash above," Insley said as the Wong's patrons raised their glasses in an Irish-wake-styled toast.

In a way, the choice made sense. Cash, as it's been pointed out repeatedly in obituaries, battled depression and drug addiction, particularly amphetamines and other pharmaceuticals, cleaning up and relapsing back into abuse several times. What hasn't been talked about with equal strength, however, is Cash's devotion to Christianity and how he leaned on his faith to help him endure his tough times and achieve stability late in his life. He often made appearances with Reverend Billy Graham and would offer to perform at Christian rallies free of charge.

The story "Grace" tells was so appropriate for the Husbands' occasion, it seemed the words could have been written about Cash. Not quite, but it was close enough, according to the songwriter.

"I write everything with Johnny Cash on my mind," Insley said at set's end. "He's always on my mind. He was my hero."

The song, a traditional country ditty, recalls the narrator's dream, in which God stares Insley down as he sings:

Well, the Lord said son you don't have to worry

I've been watching you all these years

I gave my blood to wash your sins down

I will vanquish all your fears

After reassuring that good does in fact triumph over evil, God extends a formal invitation to join him at his table:

All of your travails will soon be over

In heaven above, you can make a fresh start

On the chorus, we get spiritual absolution:

And your spirits will rise up to the sky

And they'll meet me face to face

And a lifetime of sins will wash away

With a simple lack of grace

Insley filled the space in between the choruses with a lovely harmonica solo. He punctuated the performance by yelling, "Thank you, Johnny Cash, for a lifetime of great music!"

While the performance was oddly moving, Cash, of course, engulfed the persona of a man who'd seen more darkness than anyone and, with long coat, boots and cellophane face, could freeze the tough hombres with a cold stare. That's the Cash that gave birth to bands like the Trophy Husbands. Consequently, the band made sure to mix in a little grit with the sentimentality.

As the applause for "Grace" began to die, a succession of familiar bass notes rumbled into the air. The words followed: "Well, I saw that train a-comin' . . ."

Perched behind Insley and Daly, bassist Jeff Farias took the spotlight, using his lowest register to control a faithful rendition of "Folsom Prison Blues," the bad-ass anthem that gave Cash street credibility long before there was such an absurd notion.

Halfway through, the focus shifted to Daly, who launched into one of Cash's earliest gems, "Cry, Cry, Cry"; a woman directly in front of him poured beer from a pitcher as he sang. Insley, standing to Daly's right, manned that song's second verse and, after some vintage Cash rhythm jamming, Farias resumed his "Folsom Prison" duties. The crowd rewarded the medley with a huge ovation.

This was a scene that was probably repeated in bars and pubs all over the U.S. Fans of country attitude, rock 'n' roll spirit and the romantic visions of the American landscape Johnny Cash embodied coped with the loss -- finally -- of music's Francisco Franco. Cash was a man whose health failed him miserably in recent years but whose meaning to people continued to intensify. He spawned a wide legion of bands like the Trophy Husbands. The Husbands, in turn, did their duty Friday night. (By the way, Walk With Evilis a pretty good lo-fi country-rock record.) Band members seized their moment, and sent the pioneer on to eternal peace with their own simple lack of grace.

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