Virginia Stage Company steps into the "Ring of Fire" with Johnny Cash to open season
By Mal Vincent
September 14, 2017
As the car turned off Granby Street into Forest Lawn Cemetery in Norfolk, Johnny Cash signaled the driver to stop. He acknowledged a waving teenage girl who passed a gift through the window.
“Thank you, honey,” he said as the car passed on.
The gift was a beaded Indian headband; the fan knew he was one-quarter Cherokee. He pointed out that he had written the song “Big Foot,” about the Lakota Sioux chief killed at Wounded Knee.
The year was 1969 and Johnny Cash was on top of the world. His album “Johnny Cash at San Quentin” was No. 1. His latest single, “A Boy Named Sue,” was a million seller.
He was in town for two sold-out performances. His agent had talked him into letting me, a reporter, ride with him to the cemetery where he would place flowers on the grave of “Judge” George D. Hay, founder of the Grand Ole Opry.
At the time, it was a ritual that every country star who was booked locally visited Hay’s grave. Hay lived in Virginia Beach during the last years of his life, and his grave site in Norfolk had become a shrine to country music fans.
Cash was dressed in black, of course, and his mood matched his garb. His agent urged me not to be discouraged, because “he’s always in a bad mood.’’
Cash said he didn’t mind doing interviews, much, but they took up too much time and he thought he had said all he had to say.
He told me he was probably happier when his greatest claim to fame was that he could pick 350 pounds of cotton a day – back when he grew up on fatback and turnip greens in Arkansas. “I think I still could pick about 200,” he said, “but I don’t plan to try it. I did pick a little last fall, to show June how to do it.” He was referring to his wife, singer June Carter Cash.
June co-wrote the song “Ring of Fire,” reportedly about the allure of falling in love with such a wild man as Johnny, and his recording in 1963 became one of his biggest hits.
“Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” is the musical that pays tribute to the Cash legend. The Virginia Stage Company is opening its 39th season with it at the Wells Theatre in Norfolk.
Ben Hope has the formidable assignment of playing one of the best-selling singers of all time, the one with the unmistakable baritone voice. Hope has good experience to draw on. He played guitar on the Broadway stage in the hit musical “Once.” He’s also taken on Hank Williams, Elvis, Buddy Holly, George Jones and Woody Guthrie. He has honky-tonk credentials, too, leading a band called the Uptown Outfit in New York.
June Carter Cash will be played by Hope’s real-life wife, Katie Barton, who has played Tammy Wynette on stage , opposite Hope as George Jones. The couple also have played Hank and Audrey Williams in “Hank Williams: Lost Highway.”
Cash’s life had plenty of drama, and “Ring of Fire” uses about 30 of his songs to tell his story. He grew up poor, scrapping with his family for years in cotton fields before he learned he had some talent with a guitar and a microphone, which led to fame, fortune, women and an unlimited supply of booze and drugs.
Riding in the back seat of that car in 1969, Johnny Cash himself gave his reasoning as to why country music had crossed over to pop – an evolution that’s still playing out today.
“Well, I guess more and more folks are realizing that this music is of the people and of our times. Good country music, that is. There is a lot of bad country music around, and I’ve recorded some of it. But the best of it is of and from the working man.
“Historians should be able to hear these songs 100 years from now and tell something about what we were like.”