Let the Music Play: A Tribute to Johnny Cash

Aloha, I am happy to announce the release of my new single “Let the Music Play (A Tribute to Johnny Cash)” and accompanying pictorial video montage. This song was written as a tribute to my main musical influence Johnny Cash. Over the past five days I have been blogging about the different aspects of Cash’s music that has shaped me not only as a musician but as a person as well. And out of this influence I was inspired to compose this song about the Man In Black. You can download this song along with my entire album of Original Hawaiian Country Music from my website www.paniolomusic.com or download it from iTunes.

Please enjoy my new song “Let the Music Play (A Tribute to Johnny Cash)”.

Five Days of Johnny Cash: Day 5

I have a very special announcement coming today to celebrate Johnny Cash’s birthday, so this is this is the final installment of my five days of Johnny Cash blog in which I posted a significant song that contributed to my understanding, love and appreciation for Johnny Cash the artist, musician and man. By 9 am Hawaiian time today I have a special reveal in honor of the Man In Black.

When I look back on the musical career of Johnny Cash what is clear is that he accumulated a vast collection of recordings over an almost 50 year period. Between 1954 and 2003 he recorded and released approximately 96 albums of music and 153 singles. So choosing just five songs was a little daunting. But the overriding theme was looking at what songs held the most significance for me as a person and musician. This helped focus some of my choices.

Starting off was easy, “Folsom Prison Blues” is what got me going on my Johnny Cash adventure in 6th grade, so that was obvious. The next song again was simple enough for me because “Hurt” is what I heard as a twenty something when I needed a fresh musical start and was a little confused about my direction. “Walk the Line” had to be included because that was the first Johnny Cash song I covered in a live performance that people responded to. And then it wouldn’t be a Cash discussion without mentioning his gospel influence and his love for gospel music, which resonated with me on a spiritual level as I set out on my own spiritual journey, so I had to choose “Diamonds In the Rough” with special bonus song “The Man Comes Around”.

So what song to round it all out? Very hard indeed, I mean “The Man In Black” is important because it expresses his identity as a person and explains  the reasoning behind one of his signature fashion choices. “A Boy Named Sue” is good because it shows his humorous side and his love for story telling. What about “Rose of My Heart” one of his less known numbers that is one of the most poignant ballads ever written, not by Cash, but covered with such conviction and depth. How about “Unchained” another song he didn’t write, but a gem of a tune he unearthed and gave new life through his always powerful interpretation. Same for “Bird On a Wire” and “Delia’s Gone” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” and “One”.

Not to mention some of his other early hits, “Big River”, “Jackson”, “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”, “Cocaine Blues”, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” or “Cry, Cry, Cry”. Then some of his finest covers of country classics like “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down”.

Well as you can see there are a few I’ve been touched by.

But when I really looked at it, it was as a song from “Out Among the Stars” that really ended up being one of the most powerfully influential on my life. A song from an album that actually just finally saw the light of day last year though it was originally recorded in two sessions in 1981 and 1984. A year ago I was in a special place. Having finally celebrated an important year of growth I was able to finally hear and understand the words in this song. It expressed ideas and concepts I didn’t understand before. Take a listen:

“I came to believe in a power much higher than I                                                                                                  I came to believe that I needed help to get by.                                                                                                   In child like faith I gave in and gave him a try                                                                                                      I came to believe in a power much higher than I”

Powerful words indeed and I feel no elaboration is necessary as they speak for themselves.

So stay tuned for a special announcement later today. I owe so much to Johnny Cash that I thought it fitting to do one thing, write him a tribute song. This song is currently available on my album “Paniolo Music” which you can purchase on iTunes or CD Baby  and by 9 am Hawaiian time I will be releasing a special You Tube exclusive on my channel to accompany this song.

Five Days of Johnny Cash: Day 4

I have a very special announcement coming tomorrow, so this is day four of my five days of Johnny Cash blog in which I will post a significant song that contributed to my understanding, love and appreciation for Johnny Cash the artist, musician and man. I will blog about one more song tomorrow morning before a special reveal at 3:00 Hawaiian time.

Beyond Mr. Cash’s well crafted country music standards and his unique personal interpretations of popular songs, above all Johnny Cash was a lover and perpetuator of authentic southern gospel music. He recounts lovingly and in detail in his autobiography about his upbringing in Arkansas where he was surrounded by gospel music, either by his mother, in church or on the radio.

Throughout his recording career he expressed his love and affinity for gospel music. One of my favorite Johnny Cash stories is of him very early on going into Sun Studio to audition for Sam Phillips and playing him gospel songs. After a few valiant attempts Sam Phillips finally stops Cash and tells him that no one is buying gospel records and asks him if he had anything else. This is when Johnny Cash played “Hey Porter” for Phillips, which ended up being his first number one hit.

What was interesting is that throughout Cash’s recording career he constantly struggled with his desire to play gospel music and his need for hits. After leaving Sun Records and during his early years with Columbia, he was given free artistic reign to record what he wanted and he often chose songs with a religious bent rather than songs that had potential to be pop hits. And later during Cash’s rediscovery of his Christian faith, these sentiments became even stronger, to the point in which he was crafting fully realized thematic albums, soundtracks and even movies about his devotion for Jesus and the Gospel.

I always found this to be the most fascinating parts of Johnny Cash the man. While I always loved his country standards such as “Ring of Fire”, “Guess Things Happen That Way” and “Walk the Line”, it was his spiritual music that really moved me at a deeper level. I could connect to his deep spiritual faith and his commitment to a power greater than himself.

So I do have to admit I’m gonna cheat here and add one more song of significance.

This was one of the last songs that Johnny Cash wrote and I think one his most poignant. While not a traditional gospel spiritual in the vein of the first song from the Carter Family, it exists at the same level with the same message. That personal redemption is possible through a spiritual path to righteousness. Yet this remained a struggle of his up tot he end as he expresses in the song when he says, “Will you partake of that last offered cup / Or disappear into the potter’s ground?”. So while he may have chose Jesus and he may have died believing that is the only way, I hold firmly to the belief that just an acceptance of a power greater than oneself is necessary.

Religious discussion aside, I feel the music is beautiful, powerful and it holds deep personal meaning for me. As I began to see Johnny Cash as more than just the Man In Black, but as an individual on his journey on earth to be more connected to the spiritual energies of existence I began to listen more closely to his gospel music. And then in turn I began my own journey. And for that I am grateful.

Five Days of Johnny Cash: Day 3

I have a very special announcement coming this Thursday, so this is day three of my five days of Johnny Cash blog in which I will post a significant song that contributed to my understanding, love and appreciation for Johnny Cash the artist, musician and man.

As I set out on my professional music career it was as an `ukulele player that I found my niche. I had spent a number of years studying and practicing the instrument and I found myself playing in a Hawaiian music trio supporting singer Bruddah Smitty. On my own time I was continuing my explorations as a singer mostly influenced at this time by two artists: Sonny Chillingworth and Johnny Cash. Performing in a Hawaiian music group, anytime I was offered to lead a song I would choose one of Chillingworth’s classics, like “Kila Kila Na Roughrider” or “Pua Lililehua”. At times I would throw in a Hawaiian standard from the Gabby era like “I Ka Po Me Ke Au” or “Makee Ailana”. I also enjoyed pulling from Sonny Chillingworth’s lesser known songs from his work with the Sons of Hawaii like “Sunshine Between the Rain” or “So Sad and Blue”

One night while doing a gig Smitty requested I play something “I like play”. Like I said, I would usually chose a song to fit in with the  Hawaiian music we were playing, but I think he was trying to get me to come out of my shell a little bit and add something else to the group. For whatever reason I wanted to do a Johnny Cash song so I called out a key and kicked into “Walk the Line”.

And the crowd went crazy.

Whether it was a combination of me finally getting my feet more firmly planted in what I was doing, the sound of twelve string guitar and ukulele playing Johnny Cash or the simple fact that Cash is pretty popular int his paniolo town, the people ate it up. I was getting hana hous and people wanted more. So I kicked into another Johnny Cash song and another. And from then on that’s all people wanted to hear from me.

It was a transformative moment. I had finally discovered what I can do. I finally was able to represent something that was authentically me and real to what I enjoyed doing and felt. I loved every second of it. Soon Smitty was calling me “Johnny Trash” or “Keoni Opala” for fun and people were specifically requesting I do “Walk the Line or “Folsom” or “Ring of Fire”. I felt I had arrived. I felt I had something to offer and to bring to the table rather than just the novelty of being the tall haole `ukulele player.

I felt this simple little love song from 50 years ago gave me an identity. Now I was the `ukulele playing, Johnny Cash singing tall haole guy, and it felt good.

Five Days of Johnny Cash: Day 2

I have a very special announcement coming this Thursday, so this is day two of my five days of Johnny Cash blog in which I will post a significant song that contributed to my understanding, love and appreciation for Johnny Cash the artist, musician and man.

While I was deeply moved and effected at a young age by the song “Folsom Prison Blues”, which I detailed in the first post of this blog series, Cash’s music wasn’t a big part if my life for the intervening 10+ years. Ironically enough it was this song “Hurt” that brought me back as it was produced by a producer that helped create the same music that took me away from Cash’s canon.

From the ages of 11-22 I would describe my musical tastes, while vast and diverse, as having centered around hard core punk, metal, alternative and old school hip hop. So when I finally came back around to Johnny Cash in 2002, it was fitting it came as the result of the work of music producer and producer of all things cool Rick Rubin and his series of American Recordings.

I don’t remember where or when I first heard Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt” but there are a few things I remember. I know I was an extremely frustrated young musician who wasn’t sure what direction I was going musically. And actually I was thinking it was about time I give this up and move onto to other things. But something about this song intrigued me. Mainly, how did he turn this Nine Inch Nails song into the melancholy brooding gospel-esque ballad of mourning and why did it sound so cool when I sang it along with him.

And I say that with upmost humility and respect. Let me explain. Up to this point I fashioned myself vocally as a high pitched emo tenor. I know, it’s scary. And honestly I sucked at it. There is nothing worse than hearing a cigarette smoking, heavy drinking, 22 year old, fresh out of college thinking he can sing like a mix between Eddie Vedder and Radiohead.

But when I began to sing along with Cash to this song I felt like I found myself. The notes were comfortable, natural and soothing. It actually freaked me out. I had never sung like this and I had no idea what I was doing or how I was producing it.

This set me off on a new adventure in which I had to completely rediscover and reconfigure my singing voice. Notes that I didn’t know existed or were possible to sing became part of my palette. Keys that I had never sung in or knew the scales too became an avenue for my vocal expressions. And most of all, songs that I never dreamed of singing took on a new life and a new interpretation.

But also, songs I thought were part of my repertoire were completely discarded and thrown in the dump.

I realized quickly I needed to start anew and I needed to build up an entire new tower of song. It was exciting, exhilarating and thrilling. And honestly it saved me. I had a new purpose and new drive. So I began doing when any energetic young musician should do, completely immerse oneself in the music of an artist who you love and respect and thoroughly investigate all the parameters, characteristics and circumstances that created this amazing thing.

I needed to go back, way back, back to the source and find out where I fit in all of this.

Five Days of Johnny Cash: Day 1

I have a very special announcement coming this Thursday, so this starts my five days of Johnny Cash blog in which I will post a significant song that contributed to my understanding, love and appreciation for Johnny Cash the artist, musician and man.

For me I have to start with “Folsom Prison Blues”. I first heard this song from my guitar teacher in 6th grade. He was from the midwest and loved country music, especially Johnny Cash. I am not sure what prompted him, but he felt it fit to teach a group of middle schoolers how to play “Folsom Prison Blues” and boy am I glad he did. I have no idea where that man is today, but he changed my life forever.

He started by showing us the hammer ons in the bass register for the E major, A7 and B7 chords and I obsessively practiced this for days. I had no idea you could isolate notes of a chord for accentuation. Up until then I thought you had to strum it all the way through. It was hard, but after lots of practice I began to get it.

He then showed me the little guitar picking riff with the hammer on of the g sharp note from the open g string and the subsequent b to d notes. I love the dissonant 7th sound it provided and I was surely off and running once I realized you can play the two parts together. My mind was thoroughly blown and it set me up for months of exploration of chords and the different notes that a chord is made up of.

This was truly a transformative moment in my life. And to top it all off, in the song he says he shot a man, “just to watch him die”. The fact that someone could say that and put it to song just completely blew my mind.

I always remember that moment as when I first heard not only Johnny Cash, but music in general. It is when I really HEARD the music, I could hear all the components and the pieces that when put together created the sound, not just feel it.

It wasn’t until years later in my 20s when I “heard” Johnny Cash’s music again in the American series with Rick Rubin that I truly “got it” and which in turn jump started my musical endeavors again. At that point I was a failed emo-alternative rock musician wannabe with no direction or drive. My attempts at being the next cross between Eddie Vedder, Anthony Keidis and Jeremy Enigk had ended and the possibility of me putting down the guitar and giving up on the singing were real.

But there was a song that brought it all back to me again. Check back in tomorrow…

Unearthing Secrets of the Ranch

purdy, low, kaaua

Always more to learn, always more to discover. Knowledge is like a bottomless well that you can always draw more water from. Today was a day in which I was able expand even further my understanding of the paniolo and their history in Waimea. The day started out normal enough, as I covered the basics of paniolo history and listened to some of the well known songs about paniolo life, Kila Kila Na RoughriderWaiomina, Kaula `Ili, etc… It was when we met with Dr. Billy Bergin that things got really interesting.

If you don’t know Dr. Bergin, he possesses an amazing wealth of knowledge of all things paniolo and information about the ranching industry in Hawai`i. Please, if you are interested in Hawaiian history, ranching, cowboys, the paniolo or Waimea you must check out his books, Loyal to the Land: The Legendary Parker Ranch, 750-1950Loyal to the Land: The Legendary Parker Ranch, 1950-1970: Volume 2, The Senior Stewards and Loyal to the Land: The Legendary Parker Ranch, 1970-1992: Volume 3, Agents of Change. They are truly fascinating and thorough histories of all things paniolo.

But there were two things that really stood out to me during our conversations and his presentation to the students. The first and probably most fascinating this is that much of the photographs and documents that are part of the Paniolo Preservation Society’s displays and part of their archives were almost thrown away. About fifteen years ago, seeing no use for these items and lacking space to store them, Parker Ranch had the archives brought to the dump where they were to be disposed of. Fortunately HPA English teacher Gordon Bryson was there at the dump at the same time dropping off his garbage when he saw the Parker Ranch trucks there with the large containers to be disposed of when he asked what was inside them. Upon learning that it was the vast collection of photographs, documents, letters and other archives from Parker Ranch he asked if they not be dumped and if he could have them.

Parker Ranch obliged and for ten years they were stored at HPA where he led students through the details of proper archiving and preservation of these documents. If not for that fateful day when Gordon Bryson needed to dump his garbage, all of that history and documentation would have been just thrown away and lost for ever, amazing thought.

The second thing that struck me as fascinating concerned the trip to Cheyenne, Wyoming by the three cowboys immortalized in song for the Frontier Days World Championship roping competition. Well it turns out there wasn’t just Ikua Purdy, Archie Ka`aua and Eben Low who competed at that championship from the Big Island, but three more cowboys as well. One was Eben Low’s brother who competed in a two day roping competition only to suffer a major asthmatic attack. He was replaced by William Spencer (related to John Spencer composer of Waika) who finished the second day for Eben Low’s brother and placed respectably. The third paniolo’s name escaped Dr. Bergin, but he did say he was a Hawaiian man from Waipi`o valley who was well known as a top level roper. So while many of the songs form the time only mention three paniolo’s Purdy, Low and Ka`aua, there were actually three more as well, Low’s brother, William Spencer and the nameless cowboy from Waipi`o.

So it turned out to be a fascinating and informative day for all involved. It was a reminder that while we often get excited when he dig away the surface to revel the jewels on the top layer of soil, it is when we dig deeper that the true precious gems reveal themselves, and more information is unearthed.

The Sources of Our Songs

moku o keawe

This coming week I have the honor and privilege of leading a group of students around the island exploring the meaning and history of Hawaiian mele and the places they are about. In four days we will visit four different areas of the island and learn a song or two that tells a story about that place’s history. As the students will be learning during the week, I hope to learn too. We will have special guests joining us in each region who will share with us their mana`o about the mele we will be learning. Our journey will start in our home, Waimea. We will start with two songs that are well known and closely tied to the history of Waimea, “Hole Waimea and “Waika.” These songs are modern interpretations of chants that date back to the time of Kamehameha and the famous warriors of the Waimea area. In addition, Hole Waimea is the school song of Hawai`i Preparatory Academy where I teach, and today is now chanted with a borrowed verse from Waika. These two songs are closely intertwined and represent the binding histories of the past and present. The second part of our journey in Waimea will focus on “Waiomina” which tells the story of the famous adventure of three paniolo to Cheyenne, Wyoming to compete in the Frontier Days World Championship roping competition where Ikua Purdy won first place and set the world record. We will visit the Paniolo Hall of Fame located at Pukalani Stables where paniolo historian Dr. Billy Bergin will talk to us about paniolo culture and specifically the unique saddle making history of Waimea.

On day two we will travel up the Hamakua Coast to visit two waterfalls, `Akaka Falls and Waianuenue. At our stop at `Akaka Falls we will learn about the beautiful mele “`Akaka Falls” and the legend of `Akaka. From there we will go into Hilo town and admire the beauty of Hilo Bay through the mele “Kuhio Bay”. This song is a great vehicle to learn about the many beautiful places found in Hilo such as Waiakea, Moku Ola and Waianuenue. Here we have the honor of being led by a Hawaiian Studies professor from UH-Hilo who will share with us about the stories of this song and the special meaning of these different areas in Hilo.

Our third day will take us down to the Kohala Coast to the Kalahuipua`a fishponds at Mauna Lani where Hawaiian Kahu, historian, storyteller and musician Reverend Danny Akaka will lead us through the history and stories of the area with the mele “Keawaiki” which was written there. This is truly a special opportunity as Danny is a treasure trove of information and history. I look forward to learning more about this mele and its composition as it has always been one of my favorites by the great Gabby Pahinui.

After our visit at Kalahuipua`a, we will take a short hike over to Paniau beach which is located at the southern end of Puako Bay. I am hoping that Danny can grace us with the his beautiful singing voice and `ukulele playing and play for us the song “Paniau”. This is one of the great mele of Hawaiian music and unfortunately very rarely heard or known today, Danny being one of the few blessed with the knowledge of the history of its composition and skill is singing and playing it. Hearing him sing this mele is chicken skin indeed!

Finally on our last day we will travel to South Kona and visit Pu`u Honua o Honaunau. Through the educational waiver program so graciously offered by our National Park Service we will be allowed free access to the park so the students can enjoy the importance of the historical area. While the recent storm did remove sand from certain parts of the beach making access to the Heiau limited, we will still have the opportunity to view Hale o Keawe from a distance and enjoy its majestic power. I am hoping to be joined at the park by Hawaiian musician Bula Ka`iliwai who recorded the mele “Honaunau Paka”.

This is another song that is rarely heard today, yet to me is an example of the beauty and meaning of Hawaiian musical poetry. Of course this mele holds a special place in my heart as I grew up in Honaunau and spent many many days of my youth in and around Pu`u Honua o Honaunau swimming, fishing and enjoying its beautiful grounds. In fact, it was in the powerful tide pools of Keawewai that I almost lost my life at a young age when I was swept out to sea by a powerful surge of waves only to be rescued by a Hawaiian man who risked his own life swimming out into large surf to save me.

So I am truly looking forward to this experience, to not only share my knowledge and love of Hawaiian music with the students, but to learn along with them from our special guests. The mele of Hawai`i is a vehicle for us to learn more about the land and the special characteristics of the places all around us. It is my hope that in this journey we can then turn inward and learn more about ourselves and to ho`analu….go beyond the known boundaries of what who think we are and discover more.