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.