IF YOU GO
What: Johnny Cash Birthday Bash 10th Anniversary featuring David Roe, W.S. Holland and The Royal Hounds
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22
Where: Rhythm & Brews, 221 Market St.
Bassist David Roe was with Johnny Cash from 1991 through his death in 2003. These are the albums he would have been featured on:
1991: "The Mystery of Life"
1991: "Come Along and Ride This Train"
1991: "Johnny Cash Country Christmas"
1992: Return to the Promised Land"
1994: "American Recordings"
2000: "American III: The Solitary Man"
2002: "American IV: The Man Comes Round"
2004: "My Mother's Hymn Book"
2006: "American V: A Hundred Highways"
2010: "American VI: Ain't No Grave"
Like the unstoppable momentum of the locomotives he so frequently wrote about, Johnny Cash's musical legacy stretches across the decades like a never-ending string of train cars.
Cash was best known as a country giant, but his 50-year career touched artists and fans across a wide range of genres, eventually earning him induction into the Country Music, Gospel Music and Rock and Roll halls of fame.
In celebration of his career, local rockabilly stalwarts and Tennessee Rounder co-frontmen Channing Wilson and Peewee Moore organized the first Johnny Cash Birthday Bash tribute in 2003, the same year Cash died in a Nashville hospital.
This Friday, Feb. 22, the Bash returns for the 11th time to Rhythm & Brews. In honor of this milestone, six local singers will sing his greatest hits while sharing the stage with bassist David Roe and drummer W.S. Holland, both of whom performed with Cash for years.
"It's hard not to have fun with that kind of music," said venue manager Mike Dougher, adding that the event always packs out the club. "The fact that we can bring some authenticity to it with these guys is really pretty cool."
Holland's career started in 1956 at Memphis' legendary Sun Records Studios, where he played for Carl "Blue Suede Shoes" Perkins. In 1960, he joined Cash's Tennessee Two backing band, turning it into The Tennessee Three.
Cash dubbed Holland the "Father of the Drums," and he remained with the Man in Black until retiring in the late '90s. He is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Roe became a session bassist in Nashville, where he relocated in 1980 from his home in Hawaii. A week after arriving, he landed a gig with Jerry Reed. His list of contributions includes work with Charlie Louvin, Chet Atkins, Vince Gill and Faith Hill, among others.
In 1991, he joined Cash's band after a friend told the Man in Black that Roe was the best upright bassist in town. It was a bald-faced lie, he said, but as was his habit, the Man in Black hired him on the spot without an audition.
Roe had never even held an upright bass before, much less played in the slap style Cash was expecting. Following his first gig, the Man in Black confronted Roe and asked, point blank, about his lack of experience. Roe responded truthfully, but instead of finding someone else, Cash told him he had six months to get his feet under him.
After that, Roe devoted himself to the instrument, fell in love and continued playing with Cash until his death. In that first, frank discussion, however, he said he could see the kind of man Cash was and the friend he would eventually become.
"Nobody else would do that," Roe said. "I owe everything I have now to Johnny Cash -- everything. He changed my life."
Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with bassist David Roe, who performed with Johnny Cash for 12 years, about earning his way into Cash’s band based on a tall tale, why he left his home in Hawaii and what Cash was like to work with.
Q: How old were you when you left Hawaii and what made you leave?
A: There were a couple of things I needed to get out because I topped out over there and wanted to come to Nashville. I was 29 when I left, so I left pretty late. I was doing a lot of sessions there [in Hawaii], and I wanted to do something different. I knew that if I was going to have a prolonged career in music, I was going to have to go to either L.A. or Nashville. I had somewhat of a background in country/rockabilly, so I went to Nashville.
Q: Hawaii is not a place many people associate with that kind of music. How did you first become exposed to it?
A: I was not actively playing much of that, but my mother's record collection really steered me that way. I was studying jazz and funk and all that other stuff and playing jazz downtown. I just wanted to do something different, and I also had my eye on becoming a session musician, which I already was over there. I really loved that. I got really lucky, and within a week of coming here, I got a gig with Jerry Reed.
Q: Was that transition hard for you? Going from funk and jazz to country?
A: It wasn't so opposite to me. It all had one thing in common in that it was all groove-oriented, which is where I was, musically.
Q: What was the gig with Jerry like?
A: I had that gig within a couple of weeks. I was lucky and played at a jam session with a couple of his band members, and they recommended me. He ended up being my father-in-law for 13 years, actually. I have a son who is one of the top drummers in town who is Jerry's grandson. He plays with Emmylou and a lot of sessions. He's really successful. He's in a band called the Shack Shakers. He was on a couple of their records. He did a lot of big, big stuff. He actually plays now with John C. Reilly.
Q: So you jumped right into Nashville and didn't spend much time treading water?
A: I did. To give you a brief overview, I went from that to Chet Atkins and then to Dotty West, Vern Gosdin for five years and a lot of hired gun tours, like Faith Hill and Vince Gill. Then, I got the call to play with Johnny Cash because a friend of mine lied to him and told him I was the best rockabilly bass player in the world. I had never touched in upright bass in my life.
Q: Were you called in for an audition or did he hire you on the spot?
A: No, Johnny never auditioned, never did a sound check, never rehearsed - ever. The first time I played flat bass live was on stage with Johnny Cash.
Q: Did you at least prep at home to familiarize yourself with the instrument or did you just jump right in?
A: I barely made it through the show. My hands were bleeding when it was done. I didn't even try to slap bass; I didn't even know what it was. He gave me a chance to move forward with it, and I did.
I owe everything I have now to Johnny Cash - everything. He changed my life. I'm on my way now to do a slap bass session, and without him, that wouldn't have happened.
Q: When was that first show?
A: That was 1991. I was his last bass player for the last 12 years of his life. I was on a lot of the Rick Rubin stuff.
Q: What did he say after you finished that first show? Was he like, “Son, you clearly don't know slap bass, do you?”
A: His exact words to me were, “You really don't play upright bass do you?” and I said, “Nope.” [Laughs.] He said, “And the slap bass thing is out of the question, isn't it?” I said, “Johnny, I don't even know what that is.” He said he would think about it, and the next day at the airport, he walked up to me and said one sentence: “I'll give you six months.”
Q: What were the next six months like?
A: I just got into it, immersed myself in it and fell in love with it. I have to add there that nobody else would do that; there's nobody in this world. There were other guys in town who knew how to do slap bass, and he could easily have gotten them. When people ask me about Johnny, I just tell them he was the nicest man I ever met in my life. I never saw him raise his voice to anyone or say anything mean to or about anyone, and he had plenty of reason to many, many times.
Q: Did he explain why he was willing to give you not only a chance to get your feet under you but over the course of such a generous amount of time?
A: I asked him about it a couple years later, and he just said, “Take a look around you, son. I'm surrounded by a bunch of weirdos, and you just happen to be one of them.”
Q: So he was a nice guy, but what kind of band leader was he?
A: It was just non-leading; he just did it. We all just went out and played. We never rehearsed. He pulled out new songs every night. That was another thing about him that was remarkable; I know he had a vocabulary of about 5,000 songs, and he could just pull them out of his memory. I can't remember a song I learned two years ago. He had extraordinary song memory.
Q: You were pretty young, comparatively, when you hooked up with Johnny, right?
A: I was the baby in that band. That was one of the cool things about that band for me. They were all 20 years older than me. In 1991, I was right at 40. It was like the only gig in town where you could be 40 and be the baby. When I turned 45, I looked at Johnny, and he said, “Happy birthday,” and I said, “Man, I'm getting old,” and he said, “That's the idea, isn't it?”
Q: What were the first and last recordings of his you were on?
A: The first one was right at the beginning, and I can't tell you what it was, but it was a bunch of re-cuts of old songs. I was just his guy. Every time he recorded, I was on it. There was another bass player on maybe just a couple of things, out of convenience.
The interesting thing about the Rick Rubin sessions was that they had a meeting with me and told me that he was very comfortable with me in the studio. They said he couldn't play with a click track, but he could play to a slap bass. So I was hired to do the majority of those sessions. There's not bass on a lot of those records. My bass was taken off, and I was told that in advance. I knew what I was in for, but they still treated me very generously.
When I went to work with Dwight Yoakem after that, I was living in Los Angeles part-time in a hotel, and Rick Rubin brought me back in to put bass back on some stuff. It was just a really crazed recording process.
My career now is that after that I did four years with Dwight Yoakem and mostly sessions. I'm going on tour next month with Ian Hunter from Mott the Hoople.
Q: What is it about Johnny Cash's music that is still so captivating to people more than 40 years after he first hit the airwaves?
A: Just simplicity and all the clichés - honesty, direct, brilliantly concise songwriting. I just think him being the nicest guy really translated. Even though he had this dark, evil-looking, foreboding persona, I still think people could pick up on the fact that he was just all heart.
Q: What do you have planned for this upcoming 10th anniversary show in Chattanooga?
A: I'm going to do what I always do. I'll stand up there and back up the singer. Plus I get to play with WS Holland, who has become one of my best friends. I can't even begin to tell you what a special musician he is.
Q: How long have you known him?
A: I've known him since I got the gig with Johnny. I met him one time before that, but I've known him ever since. He had two jobs in his life. One was with Carl Perkins and the other was with Johnny. His story is very similar to mine in the sense that he never played drums in his life until he walked into Sun Studios and played on those records. He played on five No. 1 records, and it was probably the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh times he had sat behind a drum set.
Q: You were with Johnny up until he died, which was, coincidentally, also 10 years ago. How did you react to that event, both personally and professionally?
A: Well, I just really miss my friend, that's all. It doesn't seem like a decade. I remember someone pointed that out to me, and I went, “Jesus, no shit?” I played at the Cowboy Jack tribute, who was the engineer on all the Sun Records albums. He became one of the most legendary producers in music history. They did a tribute to him, and we were all standing back stage talking about Johnny.
Email staff writer Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP