Despite the well-coifed hair, all-black attire and Southern drawl that have drawn Cash fanatics to Benson and his San Diego band for nearly 11 years, the singer is extremely particular about honoring — but not imitating — the Man in Black.
“I take it seriously. I don’t want to impersonate Johnny Cash, but when I sing, I sing about as close as I can possibly get to singing a song how Johnny sang it,” Benson said.
When Cash’d Out returns to San Luis Obispo on Friday for a concert at Tap It Brewing, the four-piece band will cruise through a collection of songs spanning Cash’s illustrious and genre-spanning career, touching on country, rockabilly and perhaps even some gospel. Between the songs, Benson will weave a tale of Cash’s life, educating the audience on one of the world’s greatest storytellers.
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“We tell a lot of stories about what he did, where he grew up, and how he came about to write certain songs,” Benson said.
Surprisingly, Benson didn’t grow up with an ear for country music. Rather, the San Diego native describes his younger self as a “skate, surf punk.” But during a camping trip in San Felipe, Mexico, Benson fell in love with Cash’s music almost out of necessity.
In the middle of the Mexican wilderness, one of Benson’s friends popped in one of the few cassettes they had brought along — the 1970 album “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” — into a battery-operated tape deck.
“It literally played for four days straight,” Benson said. As he quickly learned the words and began singing along around the campfire, his friends became the first to inform Benson there was a striking similarity to his voice and that of the rebellious musician.
Todd Newman, who owns San Luis Obispo-based production company Good Medicine Presents with his wife, Korie, has been booking shows on the Central Coast for more than 10 years. During that time, he says, a “cover band evolution” started to occur as the groups began to grow in popularity, as well as diversity.
“Cover bands are a bit more popular than they were when we first got involved in promoting music,” Todd Newman said. With growing demand, it has become essential for concert promoters across the country to study the vast variety of groups.
Generally, tribute bands can be broken down into three categories: Impersonators, tongue-in-cheek performers and cover bands that simply play the music of another act.
Mimics can take many forms. From stereotypical Elvis Presley impersonators in Las Vegas to groups such as Bruce Springsteen tribute band Bruce in the USA, which plays the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles on July 20, the performers try to give the audience the closest possible experience to seeing the real thing live.
“They actually try to wear the exact same clothes. They try to mimic the exact same behaviors. They go back and they say famous phrases,” Newman said.
These acts have exploded in popularity, with the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande hosting both Barbra & Frank: The Concert that Never Was, a tribute to Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, and America’s Diamond, a recreation of Neil Diamond, in the coming months.
Tongue-in-cheek bands spice things up a bit by putting unfamiliar twists on classic acts and songs.
Metalachi, which played Tap It Brewing on June 17 and will perform at SLO Brewing Co. in San Luis Obispo on Sept. 1, is a mariachi band that covers groups from Guns N’ Roses to Bon Jovi and dresses in over-the-top getups including cutoff shirts, KISS-style makeup and, naturally, zebra-print sombreros. Bands like Metalachi utilize comedy and performance art for a completely zany concert experience.
Cash’d Out falls into the third category. By not trying to be anyone else, Benson and his bandmates present themselves simply as fans of Cash, which helps them connect with each individual audience.
“I think the main thing is honesty,” Benson said. “We just try and do an honest representation of what Johnny Cash was and who he was.”
That honesty has earned Cash’d Out some pretty impressive followers. W.S. Holland, the drummer in Cash backing bands such as The Tennessee Three and The Johnny Cash Show Band, has sat in with the group, and Lou Robin, who managed Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, has praised the shows as a close representation of his former client. Even Cindy Cash, one of the music legend’s daughters, has attended a Cash’d Out show.
Such honors are the ultimate reward for someone like Benson, who has committed his life to carrying on the legacy of the Man in Black.
“When we do ‘Ring of Fire,’ we have the crowd sing along,” Benson said of Cash’s famous 1963 song. “And sometimes the crowd just gets so loud and so powerful, it really just goes right through you. It’s such an exciting, powerful feeling to know that you are bringing that much joy to a group of people.”
Christopher Dobstaff: 805-781-7913