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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Johnny Cash's band plays his legendary songs tonight

Talking to Bob Wootton is almost like communicating with a ghost.

His deep voice and slow country drawl are eerily similar to the legendary Johnny Cash.

But Wootton, the guitarist for Cash since 1968 up until Cash's retirement in 1997, is very much alive.

He, along with original drummer W.S. Holland, is touring the world playing Cash songs under the name the Tennessee Three, which is playing at Common Grounds tonight.

AUDIO

Hear about Wootton's experiences with Johnny Cash.

Wootton, born and raised in the hills of Arkansas, began playing music when his father taught him how to play guitar.

As Wootton progressed, he discovered his voice was lower than most children's around him, and he began emulating musicians with a lower register, such as Tennessee Ernie Ford and Ernest Tubb.

His greatest breakthrough as a musician came when he was about 12, practicing on his back porch.

"My mother called me in one day and said, 'You know, there's someone on the radio that sounds a little bit like you do,'" Wootton said. "And it was John doing 'I Walk the Line,' and I just fell in love with the song and have been a fan ever since."

Wootton's performing career started almost simultaneously as he began playing at church with his father. When he got older and enlisted for military service in Korea, he started a band, naturally playing "some of John's stuff."

When he returned to the states, Wootton started another band, the College Heroes, in Oklahoma and played bars, clubs and rodeos throughout the Midwest.

That's what he was doing when Cash happened to stop in Arkansas on tour in 1968.

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Cash's lead guitarist, Luther Perkins, had just died in a house fire that August, and the replacement guitarist had missed his flight to the show in Arkansas.

"This girl I was with went to ask June [Carter] and said, 'I know somebody that can play John's songs if you want somebody to play for him tonight,'" Wootton said. "And John came off and handed me his guitar and told me to tune it. He told me what song he was going to do. I didn't ask what key it was in - I just kicked the song off, and it just floored him."

At the time, Cash was seriously considering quitting or having to change his style because no one could play like Perkins, Wootton said.

"But evidently, I did," he said. "[Cash] always said I took what Luther did and kicked it up a notch. I played songs faster than Luther did, you know - kick into them."

Wootton joined as a full-fledged member of the band, which Cash called the Tennessee Three, at a seminal time in Cash's career when he was kicking his addiction to amphetamines.

Wootton remembers a show in Tulsa, Okla., where Cash "looked like death."

"He looked really bad - you know, he was on the dope so bad," he said. "Just sitting in the corner eating Life Savers."

When Cash married Carter, she would watch over him and flush any pills down the toilet if she found them, Wootton said.

"She straightened him out enough. He was getting big and fat because he wasn't taking the pills anymore and was hungry all the time," he said. "So in 1968, he was a good-sized fella."

Wootton not only witnessed Cash's redemption of character, but the rebirth of his career as well.

Wootton joined the band just in time to be able to play the string of prison shows, including San Quentin State Prison in California.

"The first prison I played with him after I came to work with him was the Tennessee State Prison, and it didn't seem like that big a deal," he said. "But when we went to San Quentin, they shut those big ol' iron gates behind you - it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck a little bit. You gotta think, 'Boy, what if they can't get the gate open?'"

Wootton continued to record and perform with the band until Cash went into semi-retirement in 1997. When Cash died in 2003, the Tennessee Three had a new purpose.

"So many people die," Wootton said. "One of my favorites was Marty Roberts. You never hear of him anymore, and I didn't want that to happen to John."

Wootton and Holland, the only two of the original Tennessee Three, now tour the world playing the songs they played with the Man in Black.

Wootton said many people are amazed that his voice is so similar to Cash's.

"We're both from Arkansas, we're both Cherokee Indian, and we just had this parallel life together - we're like brothers," he said. "But like I say, we just do what we did when we played for John. It's the same music."

Wootton said he's flabbergasted by the response people have to the band, which is selling out shows almost everywhere it goes, he said.

He said he's received standing ovations that seem to last for 10 minutes when he plays Cash's songs, but he never saw Cash get a standing ovation with people "stomping and clapping and yelling."

But Wootton doesn't take credit for the cheers.

"Sometimes I feel like he's standing on the stage with me," he said.

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