The gigs may not be big, and the band isn’t hounded to appear on Fallon, Kimmel, Conan or Letterman. But mega-Johnny Cash fan Douglas Benson is living his own dream by fronting Cash’d Out, a tribute band dedicated to Johnny Cash.
Standing outside Folsom Prison, Folsom, Calif.
Based out of San Diego, Cashed Out – singer/guitarist Benson along with guitarist Kevin Manuel, Ryan Thomas on bass and drummer George Bernardo – has played to over a million fans since forming in 2005.
Every journey has that first step and for Benson, a bouncer at a “dive bar filled with gang members and hookers,” the first foot forward was when he placed an ad in the San Diego Reader. Little did he suspect at the time that his dream to sing Johnny Cash songs would turn into a full-time job.
“Johnny Cash tribute band needs a guitar player” read Benson’s ad. “Must play like Luther Perkins.”
While Benson received plenty of responses from his classified ad, many of the guitarists applying for the gig were offering their own take on Perkins’ style and few were content to play Perkins as the guitarist himself played for Johnny Cash. That is, until he met Kevin Manuel.
“I went over to interview him at his house,” Benson told Pollstar. “I showed him four songs that I knew. He kind of nodded and said, ‘That’s pretty good. You know you’re playing everything in the wrong key, right?’
“And I said, ‘No, I didn’t know that.’ But he showed me how to do it in the right key. Then he said, ‘Alright. Where’s the band?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s just you and me right now. I need you to help me find a drummer and a bass player.’”
Four months later Cash’d Out played its first show.
As with almost every band that walks out on stage, Benson and Cash’d Out assemble a setlist. But how do you sum up an artist’s career in two hours or less? Especially an artist that was as influential as Cash and his 40-plus years of music?
“We start with the Sun years and the Columbia years. Those are my two favorite eras of Johnny Cash,” Benson said. “Then I’ll do a couple from his American Recordings albums. But we pretty much stick with the Sun and Columbia years. I’ll also do “Hurt” and “Thirteen” and stuff like that.
A good memory also helps when you play in a Johnny Cash tribute band. When you consider all the songs Cash recorded along with concert gigs and television performances, Cash’s music legacy is as long as it is distinguished. In a world where longtime artists such as Elton John or Bruce Springsteen rely on teleprompters for lyrical support, every Cash’d Out performance depends on Benson’s memory of how Cash played them.
“I probably know over 300 or so,” Benson said. “But the ones that we’ve done on stage, that I could sing right now if we went on stage and did a show, anywhere between 150 to 200.”
Although Benson’s bar-bouncing days are far behind him, his Cash’d Out bandmates have other endeavors in addition to playing Johnny Cash music. When he’s in town, guitarist Manual works as a foreman for a friend who owns a construction company. Bass player Thomas is also the author of several horror novels and runs publishing company Grandma Press. That is, when he’s not on the road with Cash’d Out or playing in his own band, The Buzzbombs. Los Angeles resident Bernardo built a recording studio in his house.
“So, he’s doing stuff on the side,” Benson said of Bernardo. “Otherwise I’d have him down here playing with me.”
But what kind of man spends most of his time playing Johnny Cash music? A dedicated fan, obviously, but if every fan of Cash’s work formed a tribute band the world would be drowning in Men In Black. For Benson, who was a self-described skate punk, his Cash addiction began with what might be described as total, complete immersion.
“I went down to San Felipe [Mexico] with some friends,” Benson said. “Someone brought a tape, Hello, I’m Johnny Cash. The tape player had [auto reverse] and it played until the batteries ran out. Then they’d switch batteries. It played for four days. That’s when I fell in love with Johnny Cash.”
Cash’d Out is also working on a CD, something many tribute bands don’t get a chance to do. After all, if you play in an Aerosmith tribute band, chances are yout version of “Walk This Way” is as close to the original as you can play it and making an album would probably seem like reinventing the wheel.
However, Benson is looking at a Cash’d Out CD as a disc featuring a band inspired by Johnny Cash and wouldn’t necessarily be filled with his hits, but a mixture of Cash tunes along with other folk and country music material. Plus a couple of original songs.
Sadly, Benson never saw his idol perform live, nor has he and the band ever played a working prison even though Cash had a reputation for playing in front of “captive audiences.” But he has played the Old Idaho State Penitentiary, which ceased housing inmates in 1973. The band has also played gigs in Folsom, Calif., and posed for photos in front of the prison where Cash recorded his famous live At Folsom Prison album.
As to having spun his passion into a career, Benson is somewhat philosophical about his life’s calling, displaying a down-home sense about what he does to put food on the table that could have been spoken by Cash himself.
“We drive for a living,” Benson told Pollstar. “We play Johnny Cash music for fun.”
Upcoming gigs for Cash’d Out include Camp Verde, Ariz., at Cliff Castle Casino March 1-2; Albuquerque, N.M., at Low Spirits Bar And Stage March 3; Kansas City, Mo., at Knuckleheads March 5; St. Louis, Mo., at Lumiere Place Casino & Hotel March 6; Chicago at City Winery Chicago March 7 and Green Bay, Wis., at Oneida Bingo & Casino March 8-9. For more information, please visit CashdOut.com.