2015-07-31 / On The Town
Mighty Cash Cats hit the stage
They’re known as tribute bands, groups that clone popular acts from the 1950s through the 1970s such as the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and ABBA.
The phenomenon started with Elvis Presley look-alikes, then in the 1970s “Beatlemania” became a hit on Broadway, and clones of the Fab Four began dotting the landscape as well.
In the early 2000s, the floodgates opened with tributes to other groups as well as solo artists such as Neil Diamond, Carole King and Billy Joel.
The shows are nothing more than greatest hits collections, with its purveyors dressing and speaking like the artists they are portraying. Some even assume the identities of several bands in one concert, starting out as the Beatles in the first act then becoming the Monkees in the second.
Once a novelty, the multitude of tribute acts have been wearing thin as they try to capitalize on the baby boomer nostalgia circuit using someone else’s song catalog.
Rarely is any innovation, new songs or true reverence involved.
And then there’s the Mighty Cash Cats.
Led by Michael J. Smith, the Mighty Cash Cats pay tribute to country music legend Johnny Cash but do so in a more reverential way than the copycat groups you see your community park. Smith, who founded the group in 2007, recognizes that, to some, the Cash Cats might be just another look-alike/sound-alike tribute band, but his intentions are more noble than that.
“Those are my colleagues, and I wouldn’t want to put them down,” Smith said in a recent interview, “but I take an intellectual approach to it. I’m a credentialed teacher and taught high school history and math for years.”
In addition to playing concerts, Smith teaches a “Johnny Cash Workshop” at libraries throughout California. During these events, he talks about the roots of Cash’s music and plays his songs as illustrations.
“Before he had a drummer, (Cash) got that percussive sound of his by putting a dollar bill in his strings so it muted them and made it sound almost like a snare drum,” Smith said. “You can hear that on the original ‘I Walk the Line.’ That was the original rockabilly sound. He finally added a drummer in 1957.”
The Mighty Cash Cats perform this evening, July 31, at the Lucky Fools Pub, 75 High Street in Moorpark.
Smith isn’t content with just playing a litany of Johnny Cash’s hits. On the Cash Cats’ most recent CD, Smith adds his own composition, “The Ballad of Johnny and June,” which pays tribute not just to Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, but the entire stable of artists signed to Sun Records by Sam Phillips in the 1950s, including Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Joining Smith in the band is Leticia Blumette, who takes June Carter’s role in the shows.
“Leticia is my June and my bass player,” Smith said. “I asked her if she wanted to play bass and she said, ‘Sure. What’s a bass?’ So I taught her how to play. We’ve been together almost eight years now. I feature her in a seven- or eight-song set in the middle of the show.”
Rounding out the group are guitarist Oliver Thin and drummer Justin Young.
Smith’s goal is to educate audiences about Johnny Cash’s larger-than-life persona.
“I just respect his music and what he stood for. Sometimes it annoys me when people focus on the one period in his life when he was doing a lot of drugs and drinking. But he wrote several books and recorded over 1,500 songs, some of which would never be allowed on the radio now, such as the song about Ira Hayes, an American Indian who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima.
“Cash sang about prisoners, the downtrodden and songs about America. Country radio today is about falling in love, falling out of love, getting drunk and driving pickup trucks. There’s an integrity and honesty about Cash and his music that you don’t get anywhere else.”
Although the Mighty Cash Cats are based in Ventura County, they travel around the country and are planning a tour of Ireland in 2016.
“Everyone likes his music,” Smith said. “When you hear a Johnny Cash song, you know it’s him.”