I had the great good fortune to be born into a family that sings. All the time. Rare is the family gathering without guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, piano, or at least a hymnbook. The afternoon after we laid my grandmother to rest, we crowded into the front room of the farmhouse on the hill, still so full of her presence, and sang with my grandpa. The old familiar hymns were balm to his aching heart. And ours.
Maybe your family doesn’t look like that. But you can get a little taste of what it might be like. Of course, in this case, your family will be made up of Broadway caliber vocalists and Nashville front line players. And the songbook: all Cash.
The Cash Legacy: A Musical Tribute to the Man in Black is the newest original offering from Studio Tenn. Billed by its creators as a “theatrical concert”, it has the ease of those family gatherings. One song moves fluidly into another without the intrusion of dialogue. Now a rip-roaring hand-clapper with everybody piling in. Then a ballad that is so tender, so personal, all you can do is listen and let the hurt of it, the beautiful truth of it, seep into those places inside you that need it.
It is an evening of memorable moments, but here are a few that have been playing themselves over and over in my head all day…
The evening opened with “Daddy Sang Bass”, plus a little taste of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. It was a lovely invitation to all of us to enter in. My brother and I liked to sing this one when we were little, so right from the get go I had my first personal connection. In a poetic turn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” came back round at the end, except by then we had cried and laughed and sat in this rich music together so that we had grown into one another and all felt part of that circle. I don’t think anyone wanted it to be over.
Carrie Tillis sat on the edge of the stage with an autoharp in her lap and brought her easy grace to “I Still Miss Someone”. Others began to add harmonies so gentle that I was not sure when they began. Ridiculously talented guitarist, Jake Bradley, showed us his vocal side when he joined Tillis for “Long Legged Guitar Pickin Man”. Their exchange was so playful and fun to watch. Clearly both were having as much fun as we were.
One of the most compelling ensemble pieces was the bluesy “Five Feet High and Rising” where they sang into and out of each other so seamlessly I swear they were breathing together.
The first time Griffin House stepped up to the mic, my mouth fell open. He sounds remarkably like Johnny Cash. Not in an affected way. Just a tone that is so very like. He and Laura Matula joined forces on the iconic “Ring of Fire”, and both honored it and made it their own, their voices a delicious pairing.
House made me laugh til I hurt, not once, but twice. First on “Busted” which he began singing and strumming while lolled out on the couch. His facial expressions while he poked fun at his ill fortune were priceless. But even better was “A Boy Named Sue”. Sitting on the steps with a bottle in his hand and confiding to his listeners his ironic story in rapid cadence with the most hysterical faces, he had us all laughing out loud.
Laura Matula broke my heart with “Give My Love to Rose”. Truth is, I might have teared up just writing about it. It was a powerful moment. She poured herself out in this song and sang it with such empathy I could see her kneeling at the railroad tracks with this dear, dying man, holding his face in her hands. I have included a video of her singing the song at Sun Studios, where Johnny made so many records, so she can break your heart, too.
I have seen Matula in several Studio Tenn productions, but last night she was dazzling. Girl got some pipes and when she is singing all out, I feel it in my chest. Because she is also a gifted actress, she is captivating to watch. Especially fun was her sassy delivery of “Cry, Cry, Cry”.
Patrick Thomas was one of my favorites in last year’s The Hank Legacy, and he did not disappoint last night. His powerful voice was just right on “I walk the Line”. And when he sang “The Man in Black”, I felt like I was hearing it for the first time. But I especially loved seeing him with Matt Haeck on “The Unclouded Day”. Face to face, guitar to guitar, they sang this favorite hymn from my childhood like they meant it, and it was all I could do not to sing along.
Sara Jean Kelley showed considerable range, from the quiet, plaintive “Sunday Morning Coming Down” to the lively and playfully vindictive “Jackson” (a duet with Haeck).
All three girl singers gathered round the piano for a sweet and spare trio setting of “Flesh and Blood”. Do you remember those albums Dolly, Linda and Emmylou recorded a number of years ago? Their exquisite harmonies reminded me of those. I kept forgetting to breathe.
When Matt Haeck stepped quietly into the spotlight with only his guitar and began to pick broken chords, slow and purposeful, I knew it was time for “Hurt”. I had been waiting for it all night, but wasn’t ready for it. Not a sound in the hall but his voice and the lean chords. And every heavy, sorrowful day was in that moment. When you can barely put words to the grief. Then the grieving builds and you feel like you are dragging an impossible weight and everything is so loud and the piano is pounding those incessant octaves and it builds and builds until you think your heart will burst.
Not a sound in the hall but his voice and the lean chords.
And the silence hangs after.
And still it ends too soon.
I beg you to do yourself a favor and see this show while you can. It plays til March 6 (including Johnny’s birthday, Feb. 26). Get your tickets HERE.
*All photographs and videos in the post copyright Anthony Matula www.ma2la.com