Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two in the Brandon Arena ~ Late 1950s
Copyrighted Cash Photos by Bill Hillman
The first records I bought as a teenager in the mid-'50s were Elvis 78s -- I still have them. Soon I was buying LPs, mainly by Sun Records artists from Memphis -- Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, et al. Other artists that fell into my collection included Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and any music that had a blues or rockabilly feel to it. The next step was to abandon the drudgery of piano lessons and to devote most of my time to attempting to learn the guitar licks on these records. No mean feat in those days before the flood of "Teach yourself guitar by tablature... by video tapes... by CD...by computer software... by online courses, etc." Looking back it is hard for most people to appreciate the profound influence these singers and guitar players had on music and youth culture in those early days of rock 'n' roll. For a novice guitar player many of the riffs heard on these records were out of reach... except for those featured on the Johnny Cash records. Technically, Johnny, lead guitarist Luther Perkins, and standup bass player Marshall Grant, were not fantastic musicians, but they came up with a magic sound in Sam Phillips' Sun recording studio in Memphis. The rhythm was provided by Johnny's "scratchy" acoustic rhythm guitar, Marshall's driving slap bass, and Luther's damped boom-chick on a trebly Telecaster. His simple "just right" lead riffs in the intros and breaks were excitingly unique. And most guitar players, with a little bit of tenacity, could emulate Luther's leads and rhythm styles -- sort of. I bought every Cash record on Sun and most of those from his Columbia and later years until his death. I was continually surprized and amazed at how successfully he could extend his music formula across so many genres.
I have since seen all my Sun Records idols in person -- and every time another leaves us I experience a great feeling of loss -- another piece of my youth has been torn away. The recent deaths of Sam Phillips and Johnny Cash have whittled the surviving influences down to just about one major Sun performer: Jerry Lee Lewis. The enormous Cash legacy is still with us, however, and especially gratifying are the memories of having seen him perform numerous times in our home town.
Seeing the Johnny Cash / Jim Reeves Show in the old Brandon Arena was a real thrill. After the show when the stars headed across the arena floor to the dressing room area, the majority of autograph seekers followed after them. But Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant of Johnny's Tennessee Two (3) stayed in the stage area to pack up. This was the days before roadies and big tour buses. I saw Luther alone at the side of the stage and made my way over to him to boldy ask if I could try out his Fender guitar. He said "Yup" and this led to my first real guitar lesson. Luther wasn't a really great accomplished guitarist . . . he probably didn't know many more chords than I at that time. . . but the lessons I learned in that short time about interaction with fans and the importance of creating your own style were invaluable. His "boom-chick" style of damped guitar and simple memorable riffs is probably one of the most imitated. Sadly, he died in a house fire a few years later. Jim Reeves, the other star on the bill, also died later in a tragic plane crash.
The Johnny Cash Show appeared again in Brandon Arena in the early '60s. The show started late as they had apparently been delayed at the border crossing. They didn't have all their costumes and instruments... I remember that their was a communal Telecaster guitar that was passed around from artist to artist. From what I can remember, the show consisted of Johnny and the Tennesse Three, the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers, Buck Owens without his own band (or his own Tele), Carl Perkins and I believe Roy Clark.
Johnny's career was really starting to take off again when he made this third Brandon appearance. He was recovering from his dark years of drug addiction, thanks to June Carter, and he was just starting to put out a string of cross-over hits. There was even talk of a network TV show. Around this time one of the Brandon service clubs and/or promoters had asked us to perform at an after-show reception for the Tommy Hunter Show. This was a success, so when the Cash show came to town we were asked to perform a similar show for his entire troupe, as well as for invited guests and dignitaries. Johnny and June were staying at the Prince Edward Hotel and the party was to be in the hotel's main ballroom. This was quite a thrill for us, although it promised to be a somewhat intimidating experience. Johnny and his fellow Memphis Sun Records artists had been my major musical influences. We performed, the guests partied and danced, and everyone waited expectantly for Johnny to make an appearance. During a break we met Johnny and June in a hotel corridor, had a quick chat, and were disappointed to learn that, although Johnny appeared to be looking forward to making the appearance, June would have no part of it, considering the long battle they had just gone through to break him of his addictions and to get his career back on track. We returned to the stage, the show went on, the party was fun. . . but Johnny's "no show," although understandable, was still a disappointment to everyone there.