A tribute to The Man in Black

When it comes to musical figures of the 20th century, they don’t come much bigger or more legendary than Johnny Cash.

Cash may have lived as a rebel during some of his 71 years on Earth, but over the past 50 years, few artists have proven to be more influential upon generations of musicians and music fans than the man in black.

Johnny Cash died in 2003, but St. Louis resident Shawn Barker will bring to life Cash’s catalogue of songs for Metro audiences tomorrow night at the Capitol Theatre.

Thanks to his father and grandfather, Shawn grew up exposed to Cash’s music, but it was not until 2005 that he began performing his tribute to the legendary country singer. A fan of rockabilly music and pop culture from the 1950s, Shawn would become a natural fit for the role of honouring Johnny Cash.

Ironically, Shawn would come to discover his knack for impersonating Johnny Cash while paying tribute to another artist who, along with Cash, was at the forefront of the rockabilly movement: Elvis Presley.

“While I was doing shows as a tribute to Elvis, I met the casting director for a production called Million Dollar Quartet,” Shawn says from Quebec City last week. “He thought I would be a good pick to cast as Johnny Cash in the production so I started flying to Hollywood on a monthly basis, taking part in workshops and doing character studies to ensure that I had my role down pat.”

Shawn says that while still in rehearsals, he reached out to connect with a man that would eventually become his manager, just to let him know what he was up to. Before too long, Shawn was performing what is now The Man In Black tribute show. In fact, he never took to Broadway for even one show as a part of the Million Dollar Quartet production because, by that time, his Man In Black tribute had developed a life of its own.

“The Man In Black Show just grew so big, we had to turn down others offers because we were too busy,” he says. “And, of course, Million Dollar Quartet has become a successful production in its own right so it worked out well for all concerned.”

Estimating that he plays hundreds of shows each year throughout North America, the sheer popularity of The Man In Black tribute is driven home when Shawn shares that he just recently completed a run of almost 11 weeks worth of shows in Quebec alone.

Although the look and spirit of his show harkens back to Cash’s Folsom Prison show of 1968, Shawn says that the material included in the show covers Cash’s entire recording career. This means that he will be performing material that dates back to his first releases on the arguably incomparable Sun Records label through the material recorded with producer Rick Rubin in the 1990s and last decade.

“The spirit of the show is if Johnny could come back and do a hits concert at the peak of his career,” he says. “I generally think he was at the top of his game in 1968 and into the early 1970s. He was still young, newly sober and extremely vibrant.”

Not all that long ago, Shawn had the honour of performing with a direct link to his hero, having drummer W.S. Holland back him up for a pair of shows. While that name may not ring any bells to some, Holland performed with Johnny Cash from approximately 1960 until Cash’s death in 2003.

“It was rather nerve-wracking to be playing with him behind me on the drums, although I really did love the experience,” Shawn fondly recalls.

“Best of all though, he turned out to be a great guy and I’ve stayed good friends with him. To think that I am able to call Johnny Cash’s former drummer a friend really is amazing.”

Article published in June 16, 2011 edition of the Times & Transcript