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Bill Forness becomes the 'Man in Black'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 21, 2013 - St. Louis musician Bill Forness wasn't sure what was going on when the guy walked up to him during a gig at Houlihan's in Chesterfield three years ago and said, “I've seen you perform a few times, and I've been waiting for you to come back. Are you going to play 'Ring of Fire' tonight?”

Sure, Forness said. “Well,” the guy said, “let me know, give me a nod before you do.”

What happened next changed Forness' career.

“He brought a young woman up and sat her right in front of me, and he proposed to her while I played 'Ring of Fire,'” says Forness, a Belleville native. “He said that was the closest thing he could get to Johhny Cash.

“That's when the wheels started to spin, and I thought, 'Wow, I think this really means something. This means a little bit more than just playing a song.'”

Stretch a guitar string from that night to Feb. 24. Two days before what would have been Cash's 81st birthday, Forness and One More Round will present their first full-blown theatrical tribute, “Outlaw & Icon: An Evening of Johnny Cash,” at the Pageant. It is the most ambitious of Forness' Cash tribute shows, which usually involve Forness solo, as a trio or with a five-piece band.

This show will feature extra musicians, dancers, actors and video – all produced by Kevin Gagnepain, the architect of El Monstero's popular Pink Floyd tribute shows.

The career of the iconic Cash, who died Sept. 12, 2003, is rich for theatrics (the movie “Walk the Line” with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon was released in 2005). Cash's work spanned six decades, from the country and rockabilly of the '50s to his historic albums for Columbia in the '60s and '70s that championed Native Americans and produced the Folsom and San Quentin prison recordings.

Then, in the '90s, a frail and aging Cash signed with Rick Rubin's American Recordings label and became a hero to a new generation with dark and stark reworkings of traditional as well as rock material, notably Nine Inch Nails' haunting “Hurt,” Depeche Mode's “Personal Jesus” and Soundgarden's “Rusty Cage.”

Forness, now 38, had been writing songs and performing for about 17 years before that night in Chesterfield. At that point, he was playing with various musicians in a variety act that included the occasional Johnny Cash song. That was only fitting, as Forness' mom was named after June Carter Cash and he learned country songs while a kid from his “porch-pickin'” grandfather. And, he was enthralled by his acoustic guitar, the instrument Cash used so effectively in his trademark boom-chicka-boom rhythm.

“I started to give it a lot of thought, and I started to do a lot of research,” Forness says. “I was always a fan of Johnny Cash, but once I started to research more of the songs and more of the man, I really realized it would be good and interesting to do a tribute to him, especially when I did research on tributes and how tributes start.”

The numbers grabbed him: There are thousands of Elvis Presley acts (Forness says he found about 85,000 worldwide) but only “25 or 30 real, working Johnny Cash tributes in the world. I've always played the acoustic guitar, and I love the tone of it, so I saw it was a good fit.”

Before he began the tribute act, he was singing Cash songs in his own voice, which is in a naturally low register. Forness says he isn't good at imitating anything.

“As I started learning multiple Johnny Cash songs, I really wasn't trying to sing like him as much as I was just trying to get all the words,” he says, laughing easily. “He uses a lot of words in his songs. So it was a lot of memorizing and (learning) all the phrasing and that particular style of guitar playing.”

Yet, in videos posted at cashtribute.com, Forness does sound quite like his subject. He insists he's not doing an impersonation.

“The oddness of it all (Cash's music) is that it's a little sung and a little more of it is talking sternly, not so much singing and putting vibrato into it,” he says. “The melody itself a lot of times is straight ahead, and there's no real variation from the normal speaking – but speaking very clearly and directly.”

That, Forness says, combined with the unmistakable rhythm of Cash's lyrics, just “sounds like him.”

Forness says a he is drawn to Cash's music primarily by the Man in Black's acoustic guitar playing (“There's a certain rhythm to it that's not like an electric guitar”). He also appreciates the humor in many of Cash's early and midcareer music.

And the darkness of many of Cash's songs, especially his final recordings, made a big impression on Forness.


“I'm a writer as well, and most good songs ever written weren't about happy times,” he says, laughing. “I like that he did that. And then in the '90s, when he started to redo some of the stuff that I grew up listening to – Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Depeche Mode – I mean even when I was young (some of) that spooked me. 'Hurt' was a big favorite of mine when he did that (in 2002). I just thought it was cool that somebody like that would transpose himself and do that later on in his life.”

Forness' show at the Pageant will draw from Cash's Sun Records work in the '50s and then move into the Columbia years. A section with singer Brittany Scheffer will feature the duets of Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, which will give way to Cash's darker, more raw American Recordings of his final decade.

“And then we'll come out into the light with a little bit of the gospel that he did, and we'll wrap it up with encores,” Forness says.

Forness' goal is to go beyond the “Walk the Line” story.

“There was a lot left out of that movie,” he says. “They just focused so much on the deterioration. There was so much more that he did, and I'm going to try to expose that a little bit more in this production.”