Imitation, as they say, may be the sincerest form of flattery. But if it’s not done with at least a modicum of sincerity it could come across as flat artlessness, or even worse, a feeble feat of fakeness.
Merle Travis Peterson, the frontman of the Cold Hard Cash Show, understands that a radiant, respectful intensity ought to fill every corner of his Johnny Cash impersonation.
Indeed, for Peterson, who has been professionally portraying Johnny Cash (1932-2003) since 2005, the undertaking is about juggling identities and freezing moments between reflection and self-projection.
“I try to look at it as an actor would do,” said Peterson, a native of the Great Falls area whose family runs five generations deep in Montana, with the first line of his kin arriving here shortly after the Civil War.
“I own that element of it — the voice and physical impersonation. But I try not to be in a fake character. It’s already phony enough as it is [by nature], but I remain real in the context of doing it, and ultimately, I’m a fan who loves to play these songs. I don’t treat it as if it were anything different.”
Peterson was 9 when he attended his first Johnny Cash concert in Great Falls in the early 1980s at the newly constructed Four Seasons Area at the Montana State Fairgrounds. He remembers that it took place on a weeknight and that the Oak Ridge Boys opened the event. This experience was his first “real professional concert.” Until then he had only heard the guitar played in church or at wedding receptions.
Yet, there he was, with the outlaw of the Nashville establishment, the man known as the Man in Black, right before his eyes. It was the gravelly voiced, hard-living crooner who he had seen on "Hee Haw," "The Tonight Show" and "The Lawrence Welk Show." To the young boy, Cash was now real, the essence of a new light. He wondered what it would be like to live in his hero’s skin.
“I got sucked into the magic of it,” said Peterson, who in the past few years has visited all of the Cash-related landmarks, including his gravesite in Hendersonville, Tennessee, the Cash family farm in Dyess, Arkansas, and Sun Studios in Memphis.
"I felt slightly afraid of him and yet fascinated. He was a better singer then; it was after he’d left the Betty Ford Clinic and cleaned up his act, and it was some professional show. My dad took my mom to their first date as a married couple to a Cash show; he was always a presence.”
Eventually, Peterson’s fondness of music morphed into a series of tests and trials, culminating about 13 years ago in the formation of the Cold Hard Cash Show, his innovative tribute to the music of Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Three (he is joined by drummer Fel Torres and double bass player John Sporman).
Since the band’s formation, they have performed on hundreds of stages, occasionally sharing them with a diverse variety of notables. In 2008 the band made its biggest splash when they performed on "The Late Show with David Letterman," which landed them on stages at several nationally known festivals such as Johnny Cash Festival Roadshow Revival in Ventura, California.
“At the time we were just a bar band building momentum and without a press kit, and we quickly had to scramble. It was quite a scramble to figure it out. You don’t get more nervous knowing that half of Montana was at home watching, and I was glad to get to the end of the song … . Quite honestly, all has been easier since then. It was bizarre, surreal, and I decided that I was going to sing to these 400 people in the room, and not think about whose watching on the other side of the camera. It was like a dream then and it gave us confidence and it made us hungry.”
Months after the Letterman performance, Peterson bumped into Cash's younger brother Tommy, who admonished him.
“It was a bit terrifying. Tommy said, ‘You are the fellow who was on the Letterman Show. You don’t sound anything my brother!' I said, ‘Well, nobody does. I sing the songs because I like them.’”
Peterson said that his goal is to bring many people at least moderate joy every performance, and to make not just visual and emotional sense out of the experience, but also one that is anchored in spiritual substance. He can be himself and someone else, too — so that’s what he does.
“It’s intimidating to play on the stages that he played on and it’s a hell of a thing to sing a dead man’s songs and to live vicariously through him … . It has been a lucky fluke to be able to do this. In the quiet moments before each show I invite his soul into my soul and like an actor I ask for a willing suspension of disbelief and that the audience wants to believe it.
"I ask for the power to lose myself in it and that the version of Johnny Cash that I bring can entertain people. I take some time to invite Johnny Cash’s spirit into me and I think about him and I ask to lose myself and psych myself up into being able to do this. I’ve studied his moves and his films, but I also try to spiritually live with him and try to spiritually connect with him anytime I can.”
Peterson is as mystified with and enamored of the country music legend today as he was as a young boy. While performing, Peterson digs into a set of songs that on their surface seem simple — almost deceptively so — and instead of simply replicating them, he works hard to impart his own degree of magic and meaning.
“I’ve had troubles in own life and demons and I always relate to his songs, and perhaps relate too much … . I think about the story [within his songs] every time. His music is something simplistic, unique and rhythmic, and tricky to try to replicate … . Think about 'A Boy Named Sue.' It’s a serious song about a dad who bails on his son and gives him a girl’s name to make him tough while he’s gone. There’s an Oedipal quality to it and it’s much deeper than what people think.
"When singing 'Walk the Line' or 'Ring of Fire,' I try to think about the woman that I love, and when I sing prison songs I try to think about when I’ve felt trapped, and insert my own human emotion into the lyrics. It takes me on quite a ride and quite an emotional journey — the journey to human depth and to the sorrow of hurt. Some nights I’m completely physically and emotionally exhausted and spent.”
In the process Peterson and the band insert their own personality into the spirit of the songs. He’ll explore tricks, and tinker with his own vocal range and he encourages his bassist to toss in his own guitar licks and “go off the script,” as he puts it.
Johnny Cash lingers as an intimidating presence in Peterson’s world for a number of obvious and even not-so-obvious reasons, not the least of which is that the artist left behind an almost unparalleled body of work for him to sift through.
“The Beatles were playing together for about 10 years. But Cash, he played for five decades, from 1955 to [his final recordings in] 2003 and all of that sound and those different instruments and the different musicians, and all of that sonic quality which changed drastically. To capture that in 90 minutes is a wonderful, well-earned challenge.”
While jockeying between the loads of periods and styles that made Cash king, Peterson invariably relies on dependable ballads such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” or “Ring of Fire” or “Walk the Line,” because they are universally recognized.
“People tend to want to hear the hits even though they like the other [lesser-known] ones. We perform 50 songs which resonate with general audiences the most and we’ve let audiences decide what the set list is going to be. Think about it: Cash has about 1,500 songs he recorded and 75 albums and we can throw a lot of songs at them. But they’d feel gypped if they didn’t hear 'Ring of Fire' or 'Walk the Line.'”