VACAVILLE — The days of a concert bill featuring Eddie Money and Johnny Cash are gone. Cash died almost 10 years ago.
However, the next two weekends at the Vacaville Performing Arts Theatre will showcase the two musicians.
Eddie Money plays there Saturday.
On Feb. 23, it’s the Johnny Cash Tribute Show – featuring James Garner, the 34-year-old musician, not the 84-year-old star of TV’s “Rockford Files.”
The young Garner grew up listening to Cash’s music and fell in love with what he heard. It was the early 1990s and grunge was the music genre of choice for his peers.
“What I heard on those Sun records and early Columbia (records) was music that was so simple,” he said. Cash recorded on those labels.
As a teen, Garner met the country legend after a concert. It’s a story he loves to recall, shaking his hero’s hand and telling Cash he was his biggest fan.
“I was overwhelmed,” he said of the event. And on the way home, he recalls telling his mother he wasn’t going to wash the hand Cash shook. He relented within a day or two.
Cash’s appeal, Garner said, stems from the fact that Cash was “all things to all people.”
“He reached out to every demographic,” Garner said. “You can’t put him a box. His influence and roots are country, but he was an Americana singer, a folk singer. He sang about the land, the people, social causes that were unpopular at the time, patriotism and God.”
Garner is not a Cash impersonator, he’s a tribute artist. The transition is pretty smooth from Garner to Cash. Garner combs his hair a different way and throws on black clothes.
In the beginning, Garner said he knew he didn’t want to go the route of an Elvis Vegas impersonator.
“I wanted to do a respectful tribute through the eyes of a fan,” he said.
He studied Cash, reading books about the country singer and watching interviews with him. And he learned all the songs.
“His life story is really one of rags to riches,” Garner said.
It’s difficult for him to name a favorite Cash tune. It really depends on his mood.
“It’s hard not to love one of the big hits, the ones that defined him,” Garner said. “ ‘Walk the Line’ has an incredible structure, rhythm and complexity. It’s stood the test of time.”
While it was a commercial success, Garner said there’s much more in the Cash catalog than many people realize. Cash recorded a number of cover songs, some written by Bob Dylan, others from Kris Kristofferson. Among them is one of Garner’s favorites, the Kristofferson-penned “To Beat the Devil.”
“It’s poetry,” Garner said of the lyrics.
Garner said there are some myths about Cash that have always existed and seem to have grown since the performer’s death.
“Cash was kind of larger than life,” Garner said.
One is that Cash is often portrayed as a wild man.
“There were times in his life he was a wild man,” Garner said. “It’s not true he was in prison. He didn’t kill people. People close to him say he was humble and happy-go-lucky. He wasn’t this moody, dark figure (but he’s) often portrayed that way, certainly in pop culture.”
It’s been a few years since Garner and his band, which also includes Vacaville resident Denny Colleret, performed in Vacaville.
“We are going to showcase Denny like we always do on guitar,” Garner said. “He’ll play some banjo, something we don’t always do.”
On the weekends he’s not performing, Garner said his time is spent “chasing kids around.” He and his wife of eight years have two children, ages 1 and 3.
During the week, Garner works with California dairy farmers on compliance issues. His father was a cotton farmer. Garner went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and studied agriculture.
“Ag is my bag,” Garner said with a chuckle.
Garner is named after his great-great-grandfather. There have been times, he’s been told, when people have called the box office of a venue he’s performing at and expressed excitement about seeing the actor James Garner doing a Johnny Cash tribute. When they learn it’s not the actor, that often puts an end to their plans.
“James Garner is not his real name,” Garner said of the actor. The actor shortened his surname from Bumgarner.
Reach Amy Maginnis-Honey at 427-6957 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/amaginnisdr.