Dyess, Ark. — so the story goes — was a place of mud so heavy and dark that the man that who would become Johnny Cash called it “gumbo.” (In those days, Cash was just a boy with the initials J.R. because his folks could not settle on a name for him.) Elm, ash, and cypress jutted up through the mud, snarled in weeds. This wasn’t a place for tender reeds, but for those ready to roll up their sleeves and work the land. It also had the potential to be a place of new beginnings.
The story of how that child went from there to everywhere is the story of Johnny Cash.
Ring of Fire explores that story through the music, religiosity, and rough humor that made up much of Cash’s experience. Each cast member, in turn, voiced his trademark introduction, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” in the opening, a nod to the universality of his lyrics and the compassion he felt for those even on the lowest rungs of society.
Johnny as a mature singer, nascent superstar, and young rough appeared on stage concurrently and consecutively, portrayed by Michael Easler, Bill Sandvig, and Dusty Bryant. The music was, by turns, rousing and haunting thanks to some very able hands working the piano, bass, fiddle, and percussion. By the time the whole company came together a third of the way through for “Daddy Sang Bass,” it was obvious this was one rip-roaring country/gospel/blues musical extravaganza.
While the full-company hymns definitely got the house rocking, some of the finest moments were the duets. Sandvig and Lara Allred grooved through “If I Were a Carpenter” as smooth as silk. Easler and Jenna Brinson lit up the stage with “Jackson.”
Kathy Summer, in her best Minnie Pearl Grand Ole Opry hat (price tag dangling down and all), delivered a side-splitting rendition of “Flushed” that all but stole the show. In Act Two, “A Boy Named Sue” repeated that feat.
The comedy was nicely played against the turmoil and pain, lending the entire performance a deeply satisfying feel. Life isn’t all ha-ha, but neither is it all hurt. The musical oeuvre of Johnny Cash is testament to that.