Channeling the Music of Johnny Cash
BY JEFF MAISEY
September 13, 2017
Ben Hope and Katie Barton co-star in the exciting new musical theater work “Ring of Fire,” which pays homage to the music of Johnny Cash.
The production is the 2017-18 season opener for Virginia Stage Company and its new artist director, Tom Quaintance. The show runs through October 1 at the historic Wells Theatre, which will substitute, I suppose, as the Grand Ole Opry of Nashville (where June and Johnny first met).
There’s perhaps more live music performance than theatrical acting as Ben Hope and Katie Barton aren’t necessarily trying to imitate Johnny Cash and wife June Carter Cash. The performance is more of a tribute to the music and telling the story – warts and all – of the country music legend.
Cash lived a colorful life and is remembers for songs such as “I Walked the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and “Jackson.”
I called Hope and Barton on their cell phone (speaker phone mode) while they were motoring between towns. Here’s what they had to say.
When were you first exposed to the music of Johnny Cash?
Ben: My grandfather grew up in Montgomery (Alabama), so when I was young we listened to a lot of Hank Williams. Any time I spent with my grandfather we’d listen to a lot of classic country music.
Although I don’t have a specific memory of Johnny Cash in that collection, I’m sure that I was hearing Johnny Cash’s music back then. My grandfather actually used to see Hank Williams sitting on his stoop playing guitar in Montgomery. He told me the story of how Hank grew up and became a big star.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I went back and discovered music I really cared about, and certainly Johnny Cash was in that mix.
Before you began performing Johnny Cash’s music and portraying him on stage, did you go back and study old concert films, biographical movies, or music videos to prepare?
Ben: I started my research with Johnny Cash’s autobiography that he wrote later in his life; his second autobiography. That book is really wonderful. It gives a great sense of who Johnny Cash was on the inside, and through all his struggles what led him to his faith, his family, and his love for music and writing.
I watched “Walk the Line” with Joaquin Pheonix. He does a wonderful portrayal of Johnny Cash.
For us, in our show, it’s not necessary to recreate Johnny Cash. He really was a one-of-a-kind. For us we are really just here to bring his music and story to life. We’re not trying to impersonate Johnny Cash or have the audience suspend their belief and think I am Johnny Cash. More than anything we want people to come and have a good time with us celebrating Johnny Cash’s wonderful career, his incredible catalog of songs, with a talented group of instrumentalists and actors that are there to tell the story, from Johnny Cash’s humble beginnings all the way to the Grand Olde Opry and into his struggles with drugs and alcohol. And then finally his love of June Carter, who really was the most important factor in Johnny Cash’s life and the reason why we got an extra 2,000 songs out of the guy. I think he would have been his own destruction had June Carter not come along.
And Katie, how did you research June Carter Cash before taking on this role?
Katie: I love watching videos of June Carter and watching her at the Opry. The first time I knew of the Carter Family was when I would go to a tent revival with my family back in Georgia where I grew up. I can remember singing some old hymns that were Carter Family songs. I didn’t realize they were until I started doing research for this show back in 2015.
Then in reading Johnny Cash’s autobiography. I’m in the middle of a book written by their son, John Carter, and he talks a lot about his mother and the huge heart that she had; and the way she held their family together and influence he had on John.
While everyone thinks of June as the comedian, I think what is important to bring to this show and my representation of her is her heart.
Ben: a piece of research the two of us shared is this clip from a show done in the 1960s called Rainbow Quest that was hosted by Pete Seeger where he had entertainers on. The set was a suggested cabin. They’d just sit there and have an hour-long conversation. June and Johnny were on that show with Pete Seeger and you can see what a wonderful brain Johnny Cash has for all this folk music he’s been absorbing his whole life. But you can also see how concerned June is as he’s chain-smoking cigarettes and can’t sit still.
Is the show done in chronological order? Are you telling the story from beginning to end?
Ben: Yeah, I think you can look at it that way. The story is lifted directly from that auto biography that I was talking about. All the words in the show are words from Johnny Cash’s own mouth.
I will come out to the audience immediately and start telling them the story of Johnny Cash’s life. I think it’s a really beautiful way to do the show because I think people are critical, particularly of icons they’re very protective of in their memories. People like Elvis Presley. Audience members can be very protective of those memories. It’s very difficult for actors to get beyond their expectations and really find a way into an audience’s heart if the audience has kind of built a shell around what they are expecting.
So it’s a wonderful way to do the show without putting too much pressure on the performers or audience, and allowing everyone to have a relaxed sense together that the show is happening with all of our help. The audience will enjoy the way the story is being communicated to them.
Do you touch on the Johnny Cash variety show that aired on television?
Ben: There is a segment of the show in Act II where we kind if exist inside the television show.
Do you have a favorite Johnny Cash song and why?
Katie: “I Still Miss Someone” touches me every time. Now it really touches me because I recently lost my older brother, and he had blue eyes. That song makes me think of him.
Ben: I go through phases of what my favorite Johnny Cash song is. Currently, I would say my favorite is “Let the Train Blow the Whistle,” because I have a fear of my own mortality. I think that song revels in the idea that you don’t need to be afraid of living your life and then losing your life when its time. That’s good advice I have a hard time taking.
When you’ve done this show – “Ring of Fire” – in the past is there a certain section of the performance or particular song the audience responds best to?
Katie: My favorite part of the audience response is toward the beginning of the show. We’re still living in the world of the farm Johnny grew up on and the whole family is singing together. We sing “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” People just stand up, hold hands, and sing along. That is my favorite – to see the audience just join us. And, of course, “Ring of Fire.”
Ben: My favorite audience reaction to the show is when there’s a suggestion of Minnie Pearl. You can really tell the people who are Grand Ole Opry fans. People who loved Minnie Pearl make a lot of noise.