A month after the biggest trial of his career garnered its final headline, Michael Cummins ditched his lawyer duds one night and strode across the Clark Center stage with a cowboy hat and guitar.
Nervously taking in his surreal environment, he could barely see past the fifth row in the darkness, though he knew there were 500 people in the audience. Then, with musician Ronnie Schmitt backing him, Cummins began his set — a mix of country covers and originals.
“During the first song or two, you can see if the audience is paying attention,” Cummins said.
Satisfied they were, he then focused on the sound of the music coming out of the monitors. “I’m thinking, ‘This is going OK.’”
After his 10-song performance opening for the “Roy Orbison Returns” show, Cummins decided it had gone well enough to return to the Arroyo Grande venue. But next time, he figured, he needed to go bigger.
“He got bitten by the bug,” said longtime local musician Wally Barnick. Now Cummins — a former prosecutor and judge and now a defense attorney — is preparing to hold court for his biggest act yet, a one-night only (perhaps) performance with a stable of local pros, calling themselves Judge Mike & the Lawless.
“It’s Mike’s party,” said Barnick, who will play bass at the show Saturday. “The primary thing is fun. He wants to do this for fun.”
The 59-year-old Cummins is careful not to build too much hype around his foray into country music. But whatever he does won’t surprise his longtime friend Ilan Funke-Bilu.
“When he sets his mind to do something, I can guarantee you, he will do it,” said Funke-Bilu, a fellow defense attorney. “He will follow his passion.”
Late musical start
Cummins and his family moved to San Luis Obispo from San Diego when he was 3. At age 16, while attending San Luis Obispo High School, he got his first guitar. But he wouldn’t get serious about playing it for nearly 40 years.
Instead he reluctantly studied business at Cal Poly, where his father was dean of human development and education.
“I was never someone who really loved school,” Cummins said. “And when I got out of college in 1978, I think I pretty much swore I would never go back to school.”
He tried to sell cars but realized he wasn’t into that, either. Around that time, Funke-Bilu was a law school graduate waiting on the results of his bar exam.
“I remember having chats with him,” Funke-Bilu remembered. “I said, ‘You know, Mike, I graduated from law school and I’m a lawyer. How hard can it be?’”
With a little coaxing from his friend, Cummins went to law school at the University of Arkansas. After graduation, he returned to San Luis Obispo, where he was a private attorney for more than five years. Then he became a deputy district attorney in Modesto. A little more than four years later, he was appointed to a judge’s seat on the superior court.
“Nobody ever gets appointed judge — or elected judge, for that matter — unless the timing’s right,” he said. He served 12 years on the bench in Stanislaus County — once receiving national attention for unsealing documents in the Scott Peterson murder case — before making a rare move: In 2006, he ran for district attorney in Stanislaus County.
“Once he became a judge, he felt that would be his career,” Funke-Bilu said. “But he didn’t really love it. He did not like it at all, frankly.”
Being a judge comes with strict rules that can hinder one’s social life, Funke-Bilu elaborated, and Cummins is a social person. Also, as a DA, he could set policy.
“If I’d loved being a judge, I never would have run for DA,” Cummins said. “But I ran for DA because I thought it was my professional destiny to be DA. The voters, on the other hand, determined that it was not my professional destiny.”
Birgit Fladager, a key prosecutor in the Peterson case, easily defeated Cummins. Because it had been in a hotly contested race in which he’d criticized the performance of the DA’s office, he was assigned to hear family law cases, which interested Cummins even less. So he retired from the bench and returned to San Luis Obispo to open a private practice.
Serving as a judge did have one lasting benefit: Due to connections forged while on the bench, he got to know country star Merle Haggard, whom he’s seen in concert 150 times over the past 40 years.
“He was actually the best man at my wedding about 10 years ago,” Cummins said. “The marriage is no more, but I have fond memories of the wedding.”
Cummins had occasionally played music during trail rides. But five years ago, he decided to record some songs he’d written.
“I wrote a couple of these songs during what could colloquially be called a form of mid-life crisis,” he said.
After recording the songs, Cummins began to think more seriously about performing.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I can sing these with a band — wouldn’t that be cool?’”
First, he took guitar lessons with local musician Glen Rathbone. Eventually, he started playing small gigs at places like Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant in Morro Bay and Bon Temps Creole Café in San Luis Obispo.
But his musical endeavors would take a backseat in 2011 when he was appointed to defend Rhonda Wisto, accused of ordering the murder of 15-year-old Dystiny Myers. For the next two years, Cummins would be consumed with the case, which included four other defendants, among them Wisto’s son.
“I don’t want to talk about that case at all,” Cummins said. His friend, Funke-Bilu, said the case changed him.
“He aged a lot,” he said. “He didn’t sleep as much. He worked hard, and it took a toll. I was concerned.”
The prosecution’s evidence against Wisto was strong. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced last May to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
A little more than a month after Wisto was sent to prison, Cummins was on stage at the Clark Center, singing “Amarillo by Morning,” “City of New Orleans” and original tunes.
“I think the Wisto trial was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of him wanting to pursue a career in country music,” Funke-Bilu said.
Cummins was quick to downplay the connection. But he is no longer taking appointed cases. And Funke-Bilu said Cummins has changed yet again since he began to get serious about performing.
“I think it took a while for him to work the emotional baggage from the Wisto trial through his system,” he said. “I think it’s finally done. I think when he committed in his mind to pursue country music, it lightened the load. He’s looking better, he’s happier, he’s healthier. As a friend, that makes me feel good.”
A chance to star
Cummins sings with a healthy baritone that suits the classic, tear-in-your-beer country songs he favors. While he was able to pull off an opening show at the Clark Center with his voice, a guitar and one partner, Cummins decided to go all out for his next gig, hiring a band and renting the venue.
Barnick, who had heard Cummins sing during trail rides, quickly signed on.
“He is legitimate,” said Barnick, a longtime member of the Cache Valley Drifters bluegrass band. “As outgoing and gregarious as he is — and I find him to be one of the most interesting, colorful people I’ve crossed paths with in a long, long time — he really is humble. He can play guitar, and he sings his songs well.”
Barnick and Rathbone helped assemble the eight-member band behind Cummins, which will include many players from Julie & the BadDogs. Then Cummins provided a list of songs by artists including Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. The band will also perform original songs Cummins has penned.
“All of us realize how special this is,” Barnick said.
Not fully lawless
While Cummins has spent a lot of time and money to make this gig happen, he’s not quitting the legal profession just yet. In addition to his work as an attorney, Cummins — who passed the bar exam in five states, each on the first attempt — has put together a video training program for law school graduates, called Breeze the Bar Exam.
Still, Funke-Bilu can see him veering more toward music in the future.
“I think it was during his last years when he was a judge that he realized that he didn’t really love the law like he loved country music,” Funke-Bilu said. “And he finally realized after the Wisto trial that maybe it’s time that I need to follow my passion.”
Cummins won’t go that far yet.
“I don’t know where the music thing’s gonna go,” he said. “But right now it’s fun doing what we’re doing.”
Rathbone persuaded him to go with the Judge Mike title, which he reluctantly did. But he nixed the idea of having band members wear orange jumpsuits resembling jail inmate uniforms. Cummins prefers to keep his music career separate from his legal one.
“When I’m singing songs, I’m away from the sadness of the court,” he said.
IF YOU GO:
Judge Mike & the Lawless
March 22, 7 p.m. Clark Center for the Performing Arts, Arroyo Grande
More information: 489-9444