Music News

The Men Behind the Man in Black

Why on Earth would anyone want to see Johnny Cash's backing band without Johnny Cash? It's a fair question, perhaps even necessary, given the Man in Black's hallowed status. Cash's music meant so much to so many that it would be easy for former bandmates to coast on the demand caused by his passing. But if you have any doubt whatsoever about the integrity of the Tennessee Three, it takes, oh . . . about 30 seconds to see that the music they're making these days is about as authentic as it gets.

For the uninitiated, Cash worked with essentially the same band — christened the Tennessee Three when drummer W.S. Holland joined in 1960 — throughout his career as a performer, which came to an abrupt end in 1997, when Cash's health issues prevented him from playing live. Cash first set out to pursue music in the mid-'50s, with two mechanics — late guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant — at his side. When Perkins, who is largely credited as the creator of Cash's signature "boom-chicka-boom" rhythm, perished tragically in a house fire in 1968, guitarist Bob Wootton was brought on board, where, along with Holland, he remained until Cash stepped offstage for good. When Grant left in 1980, Holland and Wootton became the group's principal members.

These days, when you watch the band — which is rounded out by upright bassist Lisa Horngren and Wootton's wife, Vicky, and daughter Scarlett — you'll probably do a double-take because, though you know there's no way for Cash to be in the room, your eyes and ears will tell you different. So much does Wootton's voice and inflection resemble Cash's own that when Wootton's mother first heard Cash over the airwaves — years prior to Wootton joining the band — she thought she was listening to her son and asked him what he was doing on the radio. (How can anyone argue with that?)

Rest assured, this is no nostalgia act coasting tragically (or dubiously) on a long-gone past. One look at Holland moving across the drum kit with the same sizzling, greasy command that made him famous 40 years ago makes that abundantly clear. As Holland has explained recently, Cash rarely ever wrote with the band. So, he and Wootton play with undeniable possession of the material. They've lived and breathed this music their entire musical lives, and it's hard to argue that it doesn't belong to them as much as it did to Cash. In a sense, they're ensuring that the music can still be ours, and it's high time they got their due.