Three years after Johnny Cash's death, Bob Wootton and WS Holland are keeping their friend's sound alive.
Cash fans often mention "the sound" of the legend's music. Wootton understands it better than most. For more than 30 years, he played guitar in Cash's band, the Tennessee Three.
"The sound always intrigued me - the low voice, the ghostly sound on the guitar," Wootton says.
He, along with longtime Cash drummer Holland, nightly bring Cash's music to longtime fans and expose a new generation to the Man in Black's music.
"Johnny always had a lot of older and young fans. The young ones would stick around, then their kids would come along and be fans. We did a show recently in Canada, and the promoter told us we were the only show he had where you'd have a 70-year-old sitting at the same table as a 20-year-old," Wootton says. "I think Johnny would like what we're doing now. He'd be glad we're keeping it going."
Tomorrow night, Wootton and Holland, along with Wootton's wife, Vicky, and daughter, Scarlett, and longtime Cash friend Lisa Horngren, will be putting on a show in Gumbo's restaurant at the Docks along the Maumee River.
"It's a tribute to the sound, but we don't call it a tribute show. I'm not trying to fill his shoes," Wootton says.
But there are similarities in style. Wootton's got the same deep voice and the same love for the sound. Cash fans will hear lots of their favorites.
"The very first time I heard Johnny, he was singing 'I Walk the Line.' It's still my favorite. I watch the people in the audience, and I know they're wondering if I can hit the low notes. When I do, they give me this little smile."
It's not surprising Wootton's voice has the same characteristics as Cash's. As a teenager, he would mimic his songs, knowing each lyric by heart.
"I got a record when I didn't even have a record player," Wootton says, chuckling. "The next thing I had to do was get a job so I could get a record player."
In September, 1968, Wootton went to a Cash show in Arkansas shortly after Cash's guitarist, Luther Perkins, died in a fire. A friend ran into June Carter Cash backstage and asked if Johnny needed someone to fill in on guitar. June told Cash about the young Wootton, and the next thing he knew, he was up on stage, playing next to his idol.
"I had my own band in Oklahoma, so I was used to being on stage. I wasn't nervous or anything. It was like I'd done it my whole life. He didn't even have to tell me when to change chords, but two days later, he asked me to come back and play for him, and, boy, was I nervous."
Cash found a perfect fit in Wootton, someone who could mirror the "boom-chicka-boom" guitar licks that Perkins had made famous.
"Johnny used to tell me that the Lord had sent me to him. He didn't know what he was going to do after Luther died. He was wondering whether he was going to have to change his sound," Wootton says.
As Cash revolutionized country music, he remained this mysterious figure to his legions of fans, but there was no mystery for Wootton.
"People forget that he was just human. He had his wants, desires, his needs. He had his good moods and bad moods. You spend more than 100 days a year together, you get to be closer than brothers. We were a big family," Wootton says. "I enjoyed so much of it, even the bad times. It was a 30-year-long run, and I had a lot of fun."
Johnny Cash's Tennessee Three will be in concert tomorrow night in Gumbo's. Doors open at 8. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. They are available at Ticketmaster outlets or by phone at 419-474-1333.
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