Friday 14 May 2010

The Man In Black

Johnny Cash entertained generations of music lovers with his vast catalogue of recordings and television programs.

Although mostly identified as a country music singer, he was also a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

His impact on late-20th century and early-21st century popular culture is too significant and detailed to be summarized in a few lines.

The man in black passed away in 2003 but left behind thousands of fans, many of whom wish they had the chance to see him perform live.

For those fans, "The Man In Black" tribute show, starring Shawn Barker, aims to keep Cash's music alive on stage.

Originally, Barker, a 37-year-old actor/musician from St. Louis, Missouri, began in the tribute circuit performing as Cash's Sun Records label mate Elvis Presley. After a few years of performing as Elvis, Barker went to Hollywood to audition for a part as Presley in the play "The Million Dollar Quartet," which was set in the early days of the pioneering rock and roll record label. Instead, he got the part of Cash and has been performing as him ever since.

"I started out singing my own music and in cover bands," he says. "I kind of accidentally got into the tribute side of it and was doing Elvis tributes for a few years. That's how I got contacted for the play in Hollywood."

"It was a casting agent for the play who knew that I did Elvis and asked me to audition for (it). I originally auditioned for the part of Elvis (but) was cast as Johnny Cash in the play.

"For about a year, I was going back and forth to Hollywood working on the play. I called Kurt Brown, who's my manager now, and kind of asked him if he had any work for a tribute, maybe doing Johnny Cash, and told him what I was doing. I sent him a couple of tracks of me singing and stuff. He put me in a show he had that was multiple tribute artists doing different country singers. We came out, filmed it, and sent the film out. The whole thing just kind of snowballed from there."

Now a seasoned Cash tribute artist with six years worth of performances under his belt, Barker's stage presence continues to attract an increasing fanbase. This is especially true in Quebec.

"It's been great up there, you know. It's funny how we've done really well in the States but, for some reason, in Quebec the Johnny Cash show just went huge! It just blew-up huge!," he says with a level of excitement and awe easily transmitting over the phone.

"Last year, we did the summer (in Quebec) and we sold over 60,000 tickets. It went beyond just being a Cash tribute. Me, myself, (I) went over huge. I just did one of their big sitcom TV shows where I played "Shawn Barker"! That was my part -- me as a person and as a recording artist."

The television program Barker will appear in is L'Auberge du chien noir (2003-present). It's broadcast on SRC.

"That episode, as far as I know, won't air until October 4," Shawn says.

"I'm actually, I think, the only English-speaking character they've ever had on the show in all these years (that) it's been on!," he adds with a chuckle.

Barker is tri-lingual: he knows English, German, and French.

As a person who's always interested in self-improvement, he used his time in Quebec to improve his knowledge of the French language.

"If you don't use it, you forget it! It's like over the summer, I was getting really good at my French. I was picking up quite a bit and I spent most of my time just immersed in (French in Quebec City).

I made friends and spent my time with people who were French. I spoke French.

"After we closed in Quebec City, I lived in Montreal for three weeks, with people who were only French-speaking. I learned quite a bit but I've been gone for a year. I forgot a lot of it already!"

Despite being a tribute to Cash, "The Man In Black Show" is not affiliated with the late singer's estate or business entities.

"People from the estate, the attorneys from the Johnny Cash estate, did come to Quebec and (saw) the show. (They) enjoyed it, you know, they really enjoyed it. So, they know I'm out there and that I'm doing it. As far as like a partnership with the Cash estate, no, we don't have anything like that," he says.

Barker says people attending "The Man In Black" can expect representation from all eras of Cash's career and repertoire.

"The band is four musicians, two female back-up singers and then myself," he says.

"So, there are seven of us onstage altogether and we go through Johnny Cash's career as much as we possibly can in the two hours that we're onstage. From the stuff he did at Sun Records, Memphis, Tennessee, in the very beginning of his career, all the way up to touching base with the stuff he did before he passed away with Rick Ruben and the American Records.

"We don't really stick with one period. Like I said, we go from everything, from the '50s (onwards). We do the stuff from Folsom Prison, stuff from his TV show, all the way (upwards).

"We had a meeting. We sat and tried to pick out the songs that would best represent Johnny Cash's career. Being a fan, I pretty much knew most of the stuff already but there was stuff that I hadn't heard -- the guy recorded over 1,500 songs!"

Barker usually ends his Cash tribute with the song "Hurt," a track originally performed in the 1990s by Nine Inch Nails, years before the elder singer publicly adopted it as his own. As a fan of all sorts of rock music, Barker sometimes feels tempted to perform with a slight NIN slant.

"I actually break character on that. I want to kind of cut loose with it a little bit!" he says, laughing.

With a "non-Cash" CD due to be released during the upcoming summer months, Barker hopes his Cash performances will spin off into success for "Shawn Barker."

"That's what we're hoping for! That's what we've always hoped for! We've always tried to put my name up front. It's not different than Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash (in the 2005 movie Walk The Line). That was just one part that he played in his career and that's kind of what it is for me.

"It's just one part of a bigger thing that I do: acting, singing, and (playing) music."

* Bernard C. Cormier is, among other things, a freelance writer and broadcaster. E-mail: © Bernard C. Cormier 2010