By James Beaty
As Philip Bauer stood on an outdoor stage in McAlester’s Old Town, he raised the neck of his black guitar upward and sang those classic Johnny Cash lines “ I hear the train a-comin’; it’s rolling round the bend.”
Right on cue, a Union Pacific locomotive with its whistle blasting rumbled by on the railroad tracks behind him.
It marked a fitting introduction to Bauer and his tribute concert to the Man in Black during the Old Town Wild West Festival held in McAlester on Saturday.
Dressed in a long, black coat, black shirt and black boots, Bauer captured the Cash look. Beyond the physical resemblance though, Bauer also convincingly replicated Cash’s deep baritone and on-stage mannerisms.
Intermittent rain showers from time-to-time during Bauer’s performance didn’t dampen the ardor of Cash fans who lined the sidewalks of Old Town. Some stood in the street, which had been blocked off for the occasion, while others dashed under tents when the skies opened.
The rain didn’t stop Bauer and his band, who played on the covered outdoor stage borrowed from the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant.
Some Cash fans didn’t let the rain deter them either, including a few who continued dancing in the street while the band played, rain or no rain.
During his performance, Bauer deftly handled one particularly vocal group of festival-goers who set up a yell for “Ring of Fire’ after every song.
“We’ll get to it,” Bauer said — end of discussion. Bauer did get to “Ring of Fire.” It would be the last song he played.
In between “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ring of Fire,” Bauer served up a platter of some of Cash’s greatest songs, songs which have become an integral part of American music history.
Bauer’s backing band did an admirable job of recreating the “boom-chicka-boom” sound of Cash’s band, known as the Tennessee Three. While Cash had lead guitarist Luther Perkins, bassist Marshall Grant and drummer W.S. Holland in his classic line-up, Bauer featured Kenny Anderson, Norman Cochran, and Gary Bryan filling in on the respective instruments.
They delivered a particularly fiery take on Cash’s 1958 song “Big River,” about a man following a wandering woman down the length of the Mississippi.
Bauer called for some audience participation on the Shel Silverstein-penned number “A Boy Named Sue,” about a man trying to track down the absentee father who gave him a girl’s name. He had the audience give a shout-out on “Sue!” and a couple of other key words.
Bauer stayed in character as Cash during his entire time on-stage, tell the festival-goers that “A Boy Named Sue” was “the craziest song I ever recorded.” He also told them how “he” used to go to a record store in Memphis called Home of the Blues, that later became the title of one his songs.
Along with other Sun Records favorites such as the enduring “I Walk the Line” and “Give My Love to Rose,” Bauer also sang songs from later in Cash’s career after he moved to the much larger Columbia record label.
For those too young to remember, Bauer performed “Man in Black,” relating the reasons Cash dressed in black for his stage performances.
“I wear the black for the poor and beaten down, living in the hopeless, hungry side of town,” Bauer sang, striding the length of the stage with his microphone in his hand, this time using the guitar’s strap to hold it on his back, sort of like a backpack.
Bauer also delivered a soulful version of “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which he said had been “written by my friend Kris Kristofferson.” He told how Kristofferson, an unknown songwriter at the time, had delivered a tape of the song to Cash’s house by piloting and landing a helicopter on Cash’s lawn.
“Here’s another train song,” Bauer said, as he and the band ripped into the anthematic “Hey Porter,” about a man returning by train to the south after spending some time up north.
Bauer didn’t perform any songs from later in Cash’s career, such as his outstanding American Records recordings done for producer Rick Rubin, beginning in the 1990s. Those albums led to another career resurgence for Cash after he’d been dropped from his record label in Nashville
That’s OK, though. Bauer’s portrayal of Cash focuses in on the classic Cash of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, the era of many of his greatest songs, first for the Memphis-based Sun Records label, then for Columbia.
He even tossed in a few relatively obscure chestnuts, such as “A Thing Called Love.”
Bauer and his band took a break midway through his 90-minute set, pausing during a gunfight re-enactment, also part of the Wild West Festival.
As guns boomed during the re-enactment, a female cast member yelled a line that could have come from a Cash song: “You shot my man!”
Like Cash, Bauer’s tribute performance drew listeners of all types and ages. He even honored a request from one woman to sing “Folsom Prison Blues” again, because she’d missed his opening number.
“I already played that darlin’; where were you?” Bauer asked. He decided to honor her request though, which left her literally jumping up and down in the street with excitement as Bauer and the band tore into the song’s unforgettable intro.
She couldn’t have appeared happier if she’d heard the rendition from Cash himself.
Contact James Beaty at firstname.lastname@example.org.