Fall into the Ring of Fire

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Nearly four and a half years after his death, Johnny Cash is still everywhere, man.

His distinctive voice resounds in ubiquitous commercials promoting a hotel chain, and a show coming to Cape Girardeau on Wednesday aims to bring the legendary singer to life on stage using his music.

"Ring of Fire -- The Music of the Man in Black" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Bedell Performance Hall on Southeast Missouri State University's River Campus.

The show is not a revue or a tribute. Six singers will portray different stages of Cash's life and musical career, but none will be trying to sound like or impersonate him. The producers didn't want to do that. They did want to convey through 38 songs and dialogue how this Everyman rose from being a sharecropper's son to weather personal troubles and addictions to make music that is as much a part of the American cultural landscape as Cash's craggy face.

Forty-eight of his singles landed on Billboard's pop charts. He is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the the Country Music Hall of Fame. Songs like "Ring of Fire," "I Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues" have become iconic tunes that could be sent across the universe to tell other civilizations about our own.

The 16 Nashville musicians on stage lend authenticity to the show. Some portray the immature, womanizing Johnny Cash, his rockabilly days, falling in love with June Carter at the Grand Ole Opry, his humor -- "A Boy Named Sue" -- and his rediscovery of the meaning of spirituality in his life.

"He deals with life. That's what it comes down to," said artistic producer Michael McFadden from his Maryland office. "Faith, family struggle and love."

Cash's music crosses many genres, from country to rockabilly to rhythm and blues to gospel, one reason he is beloved and revered by so many, audiences and musicians alike. "He was a great artist, an interesting and a joyous guy with a lot of humor in his life," McFadden said.

You don't have to be a country music fan to appreciate "Ring of Fire," McFadden said. "If you're not, this will open your eyes to his music."

He compares Cash to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen in the way he captured the spirit of his times. "He was really in touch with who we are as people," McFadden said.

"Folsom Prison Blues" is one of Cash's most famous songs. He overcame a drug habit, but he never served time in prison like the song implies, just a few days in local jails for misbehavior. Late one night in Starkville, Miss., police arrested Cash for trespassing. He was picking flowers on private property. These days Starkville celebrates the annual Pardon Johnny Cash Flower Pickin' Festival.

Cash is sometimes called a rebel.

"He was not really a rebel," McFadden said. "What he was, was truthful to himself."

Cash's legacy is his honesty, McFadden said. "He was like one of us."

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