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Man in Black is back: Johnny Cash tribute at The Queen

Andre Lamar * Delaware
andre.lamar@doverpost.com
Dover Post

One man’s five-year journey to becoming a Johnny Cash tribute artist has been off the chain. So frontman James Tamelcoff’s has dubbed the experience “Cash Unchained.”

“I started Cash Unchained when I was 16. Now we’re going into our fifth year as a band,” said the 21-year-old Tamelcoff. “It’s grown into something where we started with one show our first year. Then we did two shows the next year. It’s grown now to where we do close to 40-to-50 shows a year nationally, which is really cool.”

Cash Unchained debuted at The Queen in Wilmington last year and sold out. The crew returns to the venue Friday, bringing a mix of your fave Cash tunes from throughout his storied career.

Tamelcoff dished on the origins of forming Cash Unchained as a teen, what separates his show from other tributes, and how Cash remained relevant in his latter years.

What’s your niche with Cash Unchained?

A lot of the Johnny Cash tribute bands don’t have an upright bass player. That’s first and foremost. That’s signature in the early sound of Johnny Cash’s music on Sun Records. The upright bass was the percussion in the very beginning, because they didn’t use drums. A slap on the upright bass provided that rhythm. Another thing, too, that separates us is we’re not about being an impersonation of Johnny Cash. I don’t get on stage and say, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” We’re all about the music and we’re ambassadors of it.

A lot of people get up there and say, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” and they introduce their band as Johnny Cash’s band. But we don’t do that. I do all the singing and I also play lead guitar. Obviously, Johnny Cash really didn’t play guitar, but it’s one of those entertainment/showmanship things that makes us different from the other Johnny Cash tribute bands.

How did Cash Unchained get started?

The bass player in my band, Mike Hotts, he and I have been playing together for about seven or eight years now. We had a rockabilly band back in Virginia where we played locally and regionally, within a two-hour radius. We developed a sound and a little bit of a following, and we played a lot of Johnny Cash’s music in that band.

One time someone said, “You should do a Johnny Cash tribute show.” I didn’t really know much about the tribute business, how big it was growing and how it’s continuing to grow. I talked to some people and spoke to my dad; he’s really knowledgeable about music, especially Johnny Cash’s music. So we put together a show and we debuted it at our local theater, the State Theatre in Culpeper, Virginia, which is not an operating theater anymore. But we sold that show out. It was a great launching pad to where we’re at now.

How was Cash able to reach a younger crowd in his latter years?

He had a very interesting career, especially towards the end, like during the second half. He wasn’t the big icon he was used to being. He was on the down slope. He did a show in California and this guy named Rick Rubin, who was producing punk, hip-hop and other stuff, said, “I want to produce your music. I know you haven’t really done much lately.” 

Johnny was up to it and he actually started reaching younger people the older he got, which was really interesting, because he took a Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt,” he took a Soundgarden song and he was working with other artists like Tom Petty and U2. He was working with what was currently popular and was making it his own. That really escalated the second half of his career. Probably my favorite music from him comes from the second half of his career.

What do you think helped Cash become such an icon?

His drive to go against what people wanted, so to speak. When he started out, Nashville liked him. But as he grew in popularity, because he was different, Nashville didn’t want him in their music scene anymore. Nashville and the country-music world kind of pushed him out, because he wasn’t their cookie-cutter, Nashville superstar that they were producing.

Like the kind of artists Nashville produces nowadays, he wasn’t like a Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean back then. Johnny Cash was like an outsider. Him being outside the box, but also being so big outside the box, was really neat to read about. Before he died, there wasn’t any Johnny Cash merchandise in Nashville. But after he died, there was nothing but Johnny Cash stuff everywhere. Every gift shop has a Johnny Cash T-shirt.

As you’ve gotten closer to Cash’s music, what’s something that’s intrigued you more about him?

His sound was so infectious to people and it captured them. So with my own music someday, it’s made me want to capture people like that. With his personality and the kind of person he was, he was able to reach so many different kinds of people. There was no limitation to the types of people he’d play to or associate himself with. He was a people person and was so personable. The songs he wrote touched so many different kinds of people. I thought that was really cool; and I didn’t know that at first. I can see what that’s like, because when we go to these different cities, there’s all types of different people: young, old and different races.

IF YOU GO

WHEN 8 p.m., Friday

WHERE The Queen, 500 N. Market St., Wilmington

MORE INFOthequeenwilmington.com or (202) 730-3331