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Sound behind Johnny Cash

Man in Black’s original backing band, The Tennessee Three, returns to Whistler

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By Nicole Fitzgerald

Who: The Tennessee Three

When: Tuesday, Sept. 19 & Wednesday, Sept. 20

Where: Garibaldi Lift Company (GLC)

Tickets: $25

How many music revelers would love to be privy to the sounds of Johnny Cash one last time?

Whistler gives not one, but two chances with the Tennessee Three, the original backing band for the Man in Black himself, resurrecting favourites such as Ring of Fire and I Walk the Line for two concerts Tuesday, Sept. 19 and Wednesday, Sept. 20 at the Garibaldi Lift Company (GLC).

“Lots of people who saw Cash perform several times, came to see us and say, ‘nothing has changed,’” said Bob Wootton from his home in the heart of country music, Nashville, Tennessee. “The sound is still there because we are the ones that made the sound.”

Anyone who saw the Tennessee Three’s last sold-out performance in Whistler earlier this summer knows how true the Tennessee Three strikes to the heart of Cash. This is no tribute band. It’s the real deal.

Wootton, Cash’s guitarist and back-up vocals, along with Cash’s drummer W.S. Holland, worked the Whistler crowd into a Tennessee Three frenzy last show.

So if Wootton is one and Holland two, who is the third member of the trio?

“I don’t want to be an imitator or a tribute artist,” Wootton says. “It is a tribute to the sound of Johnny Cash and that puts him right in the middle of it.”

So the third star of the band looks down from heaven and probably couldn’t be prouder to see two of his close friends carrying on the 30-plus-decade-old tradition.

The Tennessee Three begun as Tennessee Two in the mid-50s with Cash’s original guitarist Luther Perkins and Holland. Two became three when Wootton replaced Perkins and Cash’s bassist Marshall Grant joined. Grant left the group in 1980.

But even with only two of Cash’s right hand men in Tennessee Three’s current state, when you close your eyes to the rich baritone vocals of Wootton, you would swear you were listening to Cash himself.

“We’ve got a lot in common,” Wootton said of Cash, who he refers to as a brother.

The two shared stages for more than 30 years. They both were born in Arkansas. Both Pisces have Cherokee Indian heritage and come from the same religious upbringing — even their haircuts are similar.

“Like a man and his wife, you start taking on the same traits over the years,” Wootton said, laughing. “You nonchalantly pick up each other’s mannerisms… We were like brothers. When I tell you I was closer to the band than my own family, I am saying it literally. Sometimes I’d be with them 200 days a year and see my family for two days. We were closer than family.”

Now Wootton tours with a different musical family — his own, with his wife Vicky on guitar and daughter Scarlett on vocals as part of the Tennessee Three back up. Wootton’s eight-year-old will soon step out of the touring van as well. Already the youngster plays four instruments.

With Wootton and Holland for company, how could it be any other way?

Wootton started playing for Cash after Cash’s original guitarist Perkins missed a flight in the fall of 1968. Wootton stepped in for a solo show at the request of June Carter. Wootton later replaced Perkins when the guitarist died in a house fire. Wootton stayed by Cash’s side even after Cash’s semi-retirement in 1996.

“We played until he retired from touring when he got sick,” Wootton remembers. “I stayed another six or seven months to watch after him (before his death).”

Holland was an original member of Johnny Cash’s band, drumming out all of Cash’s hits, including Folsom Prison, I Walk The Line and Ring of Fire. Before joining Cash, Holland recorded with other legends including Carl Perkins on Blue Suede Shoes and Bob Dylan. His tour credits included the likes of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis as part of the Sun Records artist tours. The Rockabilly Hall of Fame inductee was also awarded the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award.

The group is currently touring North America promoting their newest tribute album to Cash, The Sound Must Go On . Tennessee Three is currently in the midst of producing a new album with Cash material as well as originals.

“We’ve go a lot of things in the works right now,” Wootton says.

Including a television show. But in the meantime, the two men hit the road once again to do what they love best.

“We have the original true sound,” Wootton says. “Nobody can exactly duplicate it. Most people play it too much. They play simple stuff and add more notes. But, you’ve got to play it simple.”

Simply played, simply put, these shows are as close to Cash as anyone will ever get in this lifetime.

Pick up your tickets early to avoid disappointment. Advanced $25 tickets are available at the GLC.