Cash's Band Plays On

           April, 2006 - courtesy Yuri Wuensch, Edmunton Sun

           Setting aside your singing ambitions to play a lifetime of guitar for Johnny Cash is no compromise. As you might expect, says Bob Wootton, strumming for Cash was worth its weight in gold. So much so, that when Cash went into semi-retirement in 1997, Wootton decided he, too, would call it quits. He even went so far as selling his guitars. But you can't keep a good picker down.

           Wootton started on as Cash's guitarist in 1968, replacing Luther Perkins, who died in a house fire. After almost 30 years of playing with Cash, Wootton says the prospect of playing with anyone else was a second-best he didn't want to contemplate.
           "The last show we did on tour (with Cash) was in Flint, Michigan," recalls Wootton, over the phone from a tour stop in Richmond, B.C. "After that, I didn't do anything for like six years. There were plenty of times where people said, 'Come do a show with us.' But I was like, 'You know, I played with Johnny Cash, I don't want to play with anyone else.'"
           Cash still surprised people now and again, however. While he "retired," June Carter Cash, his wife of 35 years, was still touring. The whispered prospect of Johnny sitting in with June was enough to keep her bookings steady until she passed away in 2003. Cash passed away the same year, just four months later.
           The world of "country" music has been left poorer with their passing, Wootton says.
           "What they do nowadays that they call country music is not country music," he contends. "When you've got twangy and real hot guitars, that's not country music - that's rock 'n' roll, and it's hurting the industry.
           "To really be country, you've got to have steel guitar and fiddle. A guy like John wasn't really country and he wasn't really rock 'n' roll. Really, and I'm not quite sure who first coined the term, we are 'rockabilly.' And as a folksinger he was more hootenanny."
           With that unflinching view of what country music is, Wootton says he wasn't interested in becoming a sessions player for country's "new breed." If anything, he just didn't think anyone was that interested in real country music anymore.
           Until he got a call to play an event called "Cash Only" in 2004, that is. And in Minneapolis, no less.
           "They'd been doing it for four years before John had died. But if you come in and get up, you have to do a Johnny Cash song. I had to borrow a guitar to go," Wootton says with a laugh.
           "I had such a great time and such a great reception, I thought, 'Man, what have I been missing here? I didn't know people still wanted to hear that sound. But that's what they kept saying: 'Let's hear that sound one more time. We don't want it to die with Johnny.'"
           Last year's release of the Cash biopic Walk the Line helped introduce the legacy of his music to a new generation of listeners.
           For the most part, Wootton says he thought the film turned out well. It's also proven to be a bookings boon for the Tennessee Three, now realized as a five-piece band consisting of Wootton, Holland, Lisa Hongren and Wootton's wife and daughter.
           Now 64, Wootton says he's at long last fulfilling his dream of singing, front and centre.

           So, tonight can people count on hearing him belt out a few Johnny Cash classics? You betcha, says Wootton. But he notes there are some tunes he'll never play. "I don't touch the American Recordings material. And Man in Black ... I won't do that song. That's Johnny's autobiography. I can't play that one, but I get asked to all the time."

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