Rockabilly Hall of Famer
Rusty Evans (A Tribute)

Posted October 7, 2007
By Sarah Owen of The Northwestern

Pretenses are removed when artist does a tribute

OSHKOSH, WI - Even before belting the signature "boom-chick-a-boom" style he made famous, Johnny Cash need only utter a few short words to incite ringing recognition through the crowds.

"Hello, my name is ..." is as recognizable as are the Man in Black's baritone vocals wrapped around classics like "Ring of Fire" and "Walk the Line."

So when tribute act "Rusty Evans and Ring of Fire" takes the stage Saturday, Oct. 20, 2007 at the Grand Opera House to pay homage to the late rockabilly great, it's with humble hopes of resurrecting the legacy millions may have experienced firsthand during Cash's nearly 50-year career.

However, it's not about pretending to be someone you're not, says San Francisco Bay-based singer Evans, a Rockabilly Hall of Famer in his own right who also touts a 50-year career.

Defining tribute bands
"I'm not an impersonator," Evans declared by phone from his home in California suburb West Marin.

The singer/songwriter, in fact, released an original CD years ago. And it was a chance meeting with Johnny Cash after a show that prompted Evans to continue his own music career in tribute fashion. "I really felt that he set my spirit into continuing doing music and writing songs," Evans said. "I've got a CD out where reviewers and disc jockeys say it sounds like another album Cash would've done - as if it were written by Johnny Cash."

Many music talents worldwide have garnered attention for what some would call "cover" careers, such as local act Vic Ferrari. Still others, like the endless variety of Elvises patrolling the Las Vegas strip, earn big bucks as impersonators. But being a great "tribute artist" means embodying the essence that was, is and always will be a legend, some say.

"An impersonator to me is someone who you watch, and the person in some way resembles the artists, so much so that perhaps the performance is secondary," said Joe Ferlo, Grand Opera House executive director. "A tribute artist may resemble an artist but makes no pretence about being the artist, and performs the artist's work with highest level of quality. For me, that's a much more pleasant evening."

In 2007-08, the Grand has booked two tribute artists ... Evans and returning event "Blue Suede Shoes," an Elvis Presley tribute. The January 2008 Top 100 Night at the historic Oshkosh theater will likely feature similar acts, Ferlo says.

Scot Bruce, who makes up the early half of 10-year act "Blue Suede Shoes" with "old Elvis" Mike Albert, says a tribute band is about respect and heart, wanting to keep music alive in the hearts of fans.

"They say imitation is the truest form of flattery," Bruce said. "But you really do have to be good at (paying tribute); otherwise it becomes a parody, and that's not flattering."

Though people around the world have criticized artists they deem unoriginal, acts have long made successful careers by honoring the greats who've gone before them.

"If you go back, musically speaking, one of the first groups to do that was Sha Na Na," said Wally Messner, director of recording technology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. "And people loved it."

From the homes people build to cars being designed nowadays, Messner says, we live in a retro world where the old often becomes new again, and so it's a world where audiences like to be familiar with what they're hearing.

"And most of the people listening to the music weren't necessarily around the time this stuff was in its heyday," he added. "They think 'the best we can get is someone who's trying to do it with the same type of artistic temperament.'"

Ferlo says, virtually every band he grew up loving in the 1970s has a tribute act touring in their honor today. At a recent music conference, he noticed dozens if not hundreds of acts available for booking.

Messner, who has toured around the U.S. with various recording artists, says a lot of musicians scorn artists who don't do original material. "But you look at it and talk about Elvis, and you can't think of one song he wrote himself because he was actually doing someone else's music," he said.

Viable alternative
Music fans that couldn't afford to attend a Billy Joel or KISS show decades ago, or simply weren't around back then, today can experience the music, nostalgia and feeling of bands like Aerosmith, KISS, The Beatles and other original artists when the music is performed well by a tribute band, Ferlo says.

It may not make financial sense for the Grand to bring one of those original acts to Oshkosh, but booking a reputable tribute band offers fans a valuable musical journey.

"A lot of major artists who are subjects of these tributes, for whatever reason, aren't going to find their way into Oshkosh," Ferlo said. "They're not touring or only doing major arenas - This is a viable alternative, but only when the music's performed well."

Fans that come out to a "Ring of Fire" show are there to re-experience the music that made the Man in Black so great, Evans said. And even though he isn't the real deal, the experience still gets people off their feet.

"Some people do dress up, just get into wearing black - black cowboy hats ... there is a lot of that," Evans said.

Though he doesn't see a physical resemblance between himself and Cash, others do. Evans has been approached by strangers at airports who just had to look twice.

"Even when I'm not singing. But it's more from afar than close up," he said.

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