The Man in Black

Keith Furry never imagined he’d have a whole new career this late in life. The 66-year-old warehouse owner from Mattoon, Illinois was helping an Elvis tribute artist out with his fledgling career and the next thing he knew he was front and center of his own tribute show, performing the music of Johnny Cash in a show he calls “Walkin’ with Cash.”
“I’ve got a 100,000 sq. ft. warehouse and I devoted 25,000 sq. ft. of storage space to the school district that would buy into a co-op for a semi-truck load of school supplies and they saved the district millions of dollars by doing this,” Furry said. “I heard a guy, Scott Wattles, in the back singing one day, and he was one of the people who worked for the school. Here was this tall young man, about 6’4” and black hair, looked like Elvis with the sideburns and he had a good voice.
“I stood there and listened to him and I approached him, saying, ‘you look just like…
‘Yeah, I know, I look like Elvis. I do that, I sing Elvis.'”
He invited Furry to hear him perform at a nearby strawberry festival, and Furry liked what he heard despite the fact he sang with tracks.
“I told him, ‘you’ve got a hell of a voice but you need a band.’ He didn’t want the trouble of having a band. I said, ‘Elvis commanded a band, and you need one.’
“I knew some people and we threw a band together, and I gave him space out here to practice.”
In the meantime, they made a demo CD to send out and Furry’s wife Ruth found them their first gig. Furry was then “drafted” or “conned” into playing percussion for the band.
“Well, this went on for almost a year. Then he asked me if I could sing and soon he had me singing backup. So I did that.
“One night we were doing a full show and Scott would go from the early Elvis, which was the gold lamé and black and white shoes, then he’d go into the Las Vegas era with the all black leather suit known as the comeback years and the last set he would do the jumpsuit deal,” Furry said. “He knew he was losing the crowd between sets because it would take 20 to 25 minutes to change clothes and people were leaving. He said, ‘man, I wish somebody could do something to hold the audience.’ I thought he meant a comedian or something like that, but no.
“Walk the Line had just come out with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Scott said, ‘Johnny Cash is hot right now. I wish somebody could do Johnny Cash.’ I just grabbed the mic and I started in…’I hear the train a-comin’…it’s rollin’ round the bend’… and he says, ‘are you kidding me, Furry?’
“I told him I grew up with Johnny Cash. I was a truck driver/operator for 30 years and I used to play that stuff on my CB radio going down the road. I can do a Johnny Cash song, but you’re not putting me up front. He talked me into singing two songs.
“I just had my knee operated on and here I was sitting on this stool with my ball cap on, behind a music stand with my music stuff on it so nobody could see me. I didn’t want to get out front, but after two shows, some guy stood up and asked, ‘who’s doing the Johnny Cash, get him out front where we can see him.’ Scott said, ‘buddy, you’re about to get into this knee-deep.'”
Furry couldn’t deny that learning the two songs, compelled him to keep going and learn more, by heart. So one night Wattles put him on the spot telling the audience of about 1,000 people to stay put, “the man in black is gonna be out to sing you seven songs.”
The die was cast, the stage was set, and Wattles couldn’t imagine what could go wrong.
“Other than failing and getting laughed at a lot…nothing much could go wrong,” Furry said. “People do have pride and mine ran pretty deep. I hate to be laughed at, I always try to excel at whatever I do. You either give it your all or you get out. There’s no half-ass in it.”
So Furry’s philosophy and destiny collided in one big decision — do it right, or go home.
“That’s what drove me. I thought, I’ve got to get out there and I’ve got to do this right. I was scared to death. My wife was there with a black suit and a guitar, so I put it on, walked out in front, did my songs and somehow I got through ’em…and the crowd really liked it. Nobody threw any tomatoes at me, nobody said, ‘you’re not Johnny Cash or any of that stuff.”
He received unexpected encouragement and he couldn’t deny he was doing something special.
“A well-to-do guy and his wife stopped by the show while I was singing and he waited until the show was over and introduced himself. They were driving a nice car and dressed like they had just been somewhere nice. He asked me how long I had been doing this and I told him, ‘you just saw me, that’s the first time I’ve ever been out front.’ He couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘I just came back from Nashville and I just paid $150 for two tickets to watch a guy who said he could do Johnny Cash and you just blew him away. Don’t quit what you’re doing.’ And he walked away.”
That “atta-boy” was all the encouragement he needed to keep going, full speed ahead, with his own show. Since he had his own way of doing things, he wanted to get it right.
“I try to bring the music like he sang it,” he said. “I don’t make it my own. A lot of people do and I think it’s a mistake. They’ll get in there and tear the song up. It’s like, ‘what are you singing?’ The words are there, but the mood, the whole way he did it is not there. I like to do it like you just turned the radio on…and I’ve had more people comment that I sound just like they remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard a particular Johnny Cash song. That’s what they liked about the show, that I brought back good memories.
“What an incredible gift I was given at a late age in life, because I’ve only been doing this for about 10 years now,” he added. “I do 35 or 40 shows a year, and they’re nice venues. I go to casinos, I perform in these beautiful old theaters that have been renovated by the National Historical Society, and places like that.
“Whenever we do a theater or a casino, the thing I like about it is, when I look out into the audience, I know they’re there for one reason, and that’s to hear Johnny Cash,” he said. “They don’t want to hear Merle Haggard, they won’t be throwing out ‘Free Bird’ or anything like that. They came to watch Johnny Cash. It’s a weight off your shoulders when you walk out, so I respect my audience, whoever they are and however many they are. The only reason they’re there is because they like Johnny Cash and if they weren’t sitting in those seats, I might as well be home singing in the shower. Cash laid out something for me already, so I’m just trying to keep his music alive.
Having someone to portray June Carter Cash gives Furry’s show that extra dimension of showmanship for audiences, but it wouldn’t work if there wasn’t a natural chemistry with the lady in question, Jan Daily, because replicating the Johnny and June connection has to seem effortless.
“I think we do have that natural chemistry because we’ve had more people come up and go, ‘You guys are really married, aren’t you?’ No, we’re not, we’re just really good friends. She’s just a sweet girl, about 5-foot nothin’ and she’s sassy and very talented. As a music teacher, she’s very set about how things should be done. You either get it right, or you’re gonna get the look.
“She tells me I have a natural talent, an ‘ear’ for the music. I can’t read music, I didn’t take music classes, I didn’t take instrument classes. It was always one of those things, if I hear it, I’ll sing it.
“So whenever I listen to the Cash stuff, I listen to certain words he would hang on to and draw out, and certain words he would cut off. If you listen to him enough, you pick these little things out, and that’s no different than an actor who’s trying to portray a character where they pick out these things that stand out. We try to do the same thing, we try not to go overboard,” he said. ” I want audiences to know also I am human. There’s very few times I’ve fallen on my face and I lose a song or I get emotional. But then I’ve also seen grown men sobbing and you don’t know which songs they connect to. Hopefully I’m bringing them joy with some of the memories these songs inspire.
“That connection is what it’s all about. And Johnny Cash’s songs are just a story within a song and that’s what people connect with, is the story and one of the last songs I do in the show is “Hurt.” Those are powerful lyrics and they connect hard with people going through painful times in their lives. That song has helped them overcome some of their darkest days.
“My passion has grown immensely due to the response of the audience and the people who actually connect with me as a person and the songs that I sing for them. That’s what keeps me going, because it’s sure not the money. I would starve to death doing this, but it’s like I said, it’s such a privilege. I’ve been blessed to be able to do this at this point in my life.”
With the seriousness of putting on a good show, Furry has to interject a playfulness while sneaking in just a smidge of his personality, but then so did Cash.
“He had a wicked sense of humor. I’m there to have a good time and it shows,” he adds.


WALKIN’ WITH CASH

Avi Grand Ballroom

Sunday Nov. 12 (3 p.m., doors 2 p.m.)

See Showtimes for tickets