The man in black is gone, but his music is alive as ever.
This weekend, nearly two dozen of Asheville's best and brightest musicians converge on Stella Blue to breathe new life into some of Johnny Cash's finest tunes. Added bonus? The two-night event will raise money for music education in public schools.
"Listening to Johnny Cash has made me laugh, and listening to Johnny Cash has made me cry. If there were a Mount Rushmore of American songwriters, Johnny would be up there," says folk-rocker and soulman David Earl, who performs Saturday night. But Cash is more than that.
"I am more inspired by the life and legend of John than I am influenced by his music," Earl says. "I definitely love the music, but it is made all the better because it's Johnny freakin' Cash, man. When I heard how John met June Carter, or about him playing at prisons, or why he wore black, or especially what other artists think of him, well, it gives a person something to shoot for."
The event promises to be a testament to the creative spirit and the far-reaching influence of the legend that is Cash, with adaptations ranging from electronic to metal, straightforward folk to psychobilly, and everything in between.
"No one will be expecting our covers," says the Go Devils' Josh McDowell. "We're leaning more towards songs he wrote himself. Not songs by other people that he covered."
And the band's interpretation, McDowell says, will be equally unusual: "Just think of your typical Johnny-Cash-paced song. And speed it up five times."
The event is a benefit for the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, an organization that partners with public school systems to kick-start canceled music programs and put in place musical education where there had been none. Schools commit to hiring licensed musical educators and scheduling classes, and Save the Music provides musical instruments for the kids.
The goal, according to a Save the Music spokesperson, is to "ensure that all children have access to a complete education and bring attention to the idea that music is a galvanizing force in a young person's life. Music brings people together to listen, work together and create great things."
So far, it's been a huge success. Since 1997, the foundation has donated nearly $50 million worth of musical instruments to more than 1,700 schools nationwide, and this weekend's benefit will help Save the Music continue its mission.
Pierce Harmon of Wooden Toothe and the Hillside Bombers says he's been covering these songs for years.
"I've personally been a big Cash fan since my early teens, playing punk rock covers of his songs in friends' basements. And I would definitely consider Johnny Cash to have influenced our music in Wooden Toothe."
And while not all the performers slated for this weekend's benefit consider Cash to be a direct musical influence, his impact and appeal stretch beyond the songs themselves, says Josh Blake, who will perform both with Super Collider and the Big Money Band.
"He made music for outlaws and rebels," Blake explains. "I think that is the common thread that runs through our music. Also, in a culture where pop music is generally clouded by glitz and glam, I have always been inspired by his authenticity, and I hope that my music can reflect that."
Dane Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
who: A whole bunch of bands
what: Two-night Johnny Cash tribute, with proceeds going to VH1 Save the Music Foundation
where: Stella Blue
when: Friday, Jan. 15 and Saturday, Jan. 16 (9 p.m. $7 for each night or $10 for both. www.myspace.com/stellabluelive)