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Walking Johnny Cash's line

Nanaimo musician earning praise for tribute to country legend



Who: Almost Johnny Cash's Big River

Where: Dusty's

When: Saturday, Dec. 11

You can imitate, you can emulate, and then you can inhabit. Dave Pittet most certainly does the latter with Johnny Cash.

A Nanaimo musician, Pittet doesn't just play the songs of the Man in Black. For the past three years now he has worked his damndest to evoke the country/rock legend as lead singer of Almost Johnny Cash's Big River, an act that will hit Dusty's on Dec. 11.

The band is as much a musical performance as it is method acting, at least in the case of its frontman. With a gravelly, guttural voice that uncannily replicates Cash's, Pittet has put a mountain of effort into his performance. He has matched his hair, his posture and his clothing to his subject.

Most cover bands depend merely on nostalgia to draw an audience. Big River wants you to imagine the man is right there up on stage.

Almost Johnny Cash has a rather unremarkable beginning: it was five years ago and the biopic Walk the Line was in theatres. Pittet's girlfriend suggested they see it about six months after it hit the multiplexes - a long life in theatres for any film.

"I just started singing along and talking," he said in an interview. "She said you sound better than Joaquin Phoenix."

The film tapped into something. Like Cash, Pittet grew up in a farming community. His father owned the hardware store in Tofield, Alberta, just outside of Edmonton, and all of his friends were farmers. He helped them bale hay, tend to horses, all while he listened to the sounds of Ring of Fire and Folsom Prison Blues on CFTW radio.

Two years after seeing Walk the Line , Pittet found himself hanging out after hours at the bar in the Queens Hotel in Nanaimo, formerly a blues-y venue that has since turned to more of a rock audience. In the green room after a show he picked up a guitar and started playing Ring of Fire.

As he strummed the last chord his listeners just sat there in silence.

"What?" Dave asked, wondering whether he'd lost his touch.

"Are you Johnny's twin?" asked a man sitting at the bar. "Because dude, that's what you should be doing."

"Since then I haven't looked back," Pittet said.

From there he has worked to hone his performance - the music as well as the personality. He draws on what he says is a "sordid past," just like Johnny's, and a marital record to match.

"I had a similar marriage, if you'd like," Pittet said. "I've had quit a few children, three of them. Cash had four with his first wife."

He's backed up by a three-piece band: Robert "RJ" Morrison, a guitarist adept at pointing out "that familiar Johnny Cash groove," according to the band's website; Colin Stevenson, a drummer from Victoria who was headhunted into the band because of his ability to stay truthful to style; and Todd Sacerty, billed as the "most respected and talented bass player from Nanaimo, B.C.

Almost Johnny Cash's current tour sees Pittet traversing the west. In November he played gigs in Langley, Calgary and Vancouver. After Whistler he goes to Crofton, Slave Lake, Cold Lake and Mount Washington, playing sold out gigs along the way. That takes him up to about March and from there he said he's booked solid in bars, rodeos, casinos and other road venues.

A shy fellow by his own admission, he's truly in his place on stage.

"Johnny said in an interview once he was more comfortable in front of 10,000 people than 10," Pittet said. "If you put me up on stage, 10 people are more difficult to me than 10,000.

"It's something else when a 70 year old comes up to you and says, I saw Johnny Cash when I was 10 years old and you're as good as him any day of the week."

Saturday's performance will mark Pittet's second trip to Whistler in his life. His first was a ski trip about five years ago and he looks forward to playing in and around the mountains once more.

As we hang up the phone he offers a farewell that can only have been inspired by Cash himself: "May the wind always be at your back," he says.