The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash recall country music’s badass roots.
Thursday, May 18, 2006
Mark Stuart says that after a string of failures in the music industry following the break-up of his punk band The X-Offenders, he found his true calling when a music legend started to visit his dreams. Stuart recalls one specific recurring dream in which he waited in a line of people to meet the musician. When Stuart got to him, he discovered it was none other than Johnny Cash. In each dream, Stuart says, when he got to the front of the line Cash would sing him a song or talk with him a while. In the morning, Stuart would wake up and start writing stripped-down Americana music that tipped its hat to outlaw country artists like Cash, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard.
“I got the calling like a Pentecostal preacher,” Stuart says of the distinct change in musical direction.
Stuart says it wasn’t like he hadn’t heard the outlaw country artists before. Stuart recalls many fishing trips with his father driving up to lakes and streams in a ’68 Firebird with Cash blasting on the eight-track player when he was just 8 years old. “I remember we used to sing along to ‘A Boy Named Sue,’” he says.
By the time Stuart started playing in The X-Offenders in 1981, those memories of fishing trips and the ocean-deep voice of Cash were buried in the back of his mind. Though Stuart’s punk band played with some of the genre’s greatest artists, including X and Iggy Pop, the musician is unsparing with his assessment of his former band. “I would describe it as crappy attempts at songwriting with lots of energy,” he says.
After The X-Offenders called it quits in 1985, Stuart got frustrated with the music business. Around the same time Cash started making his nighttime visits, the musician had decided that he wanted to sharpen his songwriting skills. “I got more and more into trying to be a good songwriter,” Stuart says, “and that directed me back to country.”
Stuart says he believes that today’s mainstream country performers are missing one crucial element: honesty. “There doesn’t seem to be any real life stories,” Stuart says. “It’s just silly rhymes.”
In 1995, Stuart started to get excited about the new material he was writing and formed the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash. Though he was pumped about the songs, people in his hometown of San Diego, which is not known as a country music mecca, had a decidedly different take on the numbers.
“I think they were confused,” he says. “We got fired from playing a lot of places.”
Eventually, Stuart accumulated enough songs to cut a debut album with his new band. But he felt badly because Cash had not approved of the band’s name. As he tells it, an amazing twist of fate occurred: on day while he was sitting in a San Diego bar, he says, he heard that Cash was in town—in fact, right down the street—filming an episode of the television show Renegade.
Stuart says he summoned up some courage and walked down the road to meet one of his musical idols with a letter explaining the name of his new band and a tape of the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash’s music. He knocked on the door of Cash’s trailer, but instead of the legend, Cash’s niece walked out. She promised that she would deliver everything to her uncle.
Two days later, Stuart was shocked to get a call at home from Cash himself. “I didn’t know if he was going to tear me a new asshole,” Stuart says.
Apparently, Stuart’s fears of Cash resenting the band name were unfounded. “He thought the name was great, and the music was great,” Stuart says. “He said ‘You’re on the right path.’”
Cash is not the only classic country artist to embrace the sound of the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash. Willie Nelson heard a tape of the band and invited them to play his annual Fourth of July Picnic in Luchenbach, Texas. “That was my first show playing before 13,000 sunburned, drunk Texans,” Stuart says.
The experience inspired Stuart to pen “Austin Night,” the first song on the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash’s latest CD titled Mile Markers. As with many of the other songs on the release (including “The Road to Bakersfield” and “California Sky”), “Austin Night” evokes a definite sense of place.
The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash rolled through Monterey Live this past January on a Monday night. Though the club wasn’t filled, Stuart describes the crowd as one of the most fun he has played for in recent memory.
For those who didn’t make it to the show, Stuart tells me what newcomers can expect this Friday night. “The crowd will get taken to a place far from Monterey, with cactus and truck stops,” he says.
THE BASTARD SONS OF JOHNNY CASH play Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St., Monterey, this Friday at 9pm. Tickets are $12/in advance; $15/at the door. 375-5483.