Retro Rendition

When it comes to portraying Johnny Cash, tribute artists don’t get much closer than Shawn Barker.
Cash commanded and earned the kind of serious respect that continues long after his passing, and Barker has kept that respect at the very core of everything he does from the very beginning. Sure, an artist might include the kind of fun Cash used to have, because they know full-well his fans expect nothing less.
So when “The Man in Black” show starring Barker first played Laughlin about 13 years ago, the cast included a link to the original “Man in Black” when Cash’s Tennessee Three drummer, W.S. “Fluke” Holland, shared the stage with Barker. That was a testimonial to end testimonials. If “Fluke” Holland thought enough of Barker’s portrayal of his dear departed friend to agree to do those few select shows, then who was anyone else to argue?
Holland’s appearance with Barker was a special engagement. The drummer wanted to get one more chance to play with as close as he could get to Johnny Cash before hanging up the sticks for good.
Barker took the compliment to heart and has continued on with his portrayal of Cash ever since. In the process, Barker has created a circle of his own fans who embrace his take on one of American music’s biggest icons. That take is a retro peek at Cash — that is, Barker delivers the music as a young Johnny Cash would do it. An ironic move considering his tribute artist career started with his portrayal of Elvis Presley — but his cosmic arrow seemed to be pointing him in the Cash direction long before he even considered the idea.
“One year, on a whim, I decided to dress like Elvis for Halloween. People at work were taken aback,” Barker told the Laughlin entertainer. “Based on their reaction, I entered an Elvis impersonator contest and won. That led to an Elvis tribute I did for five years.
“I then answered a casting call for a Broadway play about ‘The Million Dollar Quartet,’ the famous jam session at Sun Records (with Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis). They were casting Elvis and wanted me to audition for the role, but they also wanted me to try out as each person in the play to see what my range was,” he added. “They surprised me when they wanted to cast me as Johnny Cash.
“From that, I started making calls asking if I could make a living as Johnny Cash. I didn’t know anybody my age who was performing as a young Johnny Cash. The movie, Walk the Line was getting ready to hit theaters.”
It wasn’t long before the show was booked in venues across the country, with stops in Laughlin included in the itinerary on a regular basis. It’s no surprise he returns once again for another set of shows that pay tribute to the Man in Black, but there will be a few changes in store for people who think they’ve already seen the show. Barker is now serving as the show producer in addition to his portrayal of Cash.
“I wanted to branch out and do new things — I’ve been doing this 16 years now,” he said. “So I figured I’d learned enough and done it long enough where I could pretty much take it out and do it on my own.
“In the process of striking out on my own, I ran into a representative of Villam Management out of Los Angeles. The first time I met him was in Laughlin,” he added. “He came to see the show there and now his brother plays drums for me. They were a little bigger in the business and I signed with them. He in turn got me hooked up with a talent agency, also out of L.A. who’s huge there, so I signed with them as my agent. Things have taken off from there. We’re doing really good, and we’ve got all kinds of shows booked and they’re really pushing the show in different directions that it wasn’t able to get to before — taking it to a level we couldn’t, because we didn’t have those connections. We didn’t have that level of expertise in the entertainment business.”
The process has been a big step, Barker has wanted to take for a long time because Cash fans continue to be loyal and more Cash tributes continue to crop up.
“I feel like it’s actually getting bigger than what it was when I started,” Barker said. “There’s always something new about Cash coming out, there’s always some new angle that’s being worked with him. They just released that YouTube documentary called “The Gift.” It was a 90-minute documentary that was all about Johnny Cash’s life, and all narrated by Cash himself.
“Even the new mini-series that was on PBS, “Country Music” that was done by Ken Burns who, as far as documentaries go, he’s probably one of the biggest award-winning documentary creators there is. Ninety percent of the documentary is based on Johnny Cash. He just seems to get bigger and bigger all the time.”
Barker’s show keeps in step with all of it.
“My show’s changing now, and I have complete artistic control of what’s going on with the show,” he said. “I have a whole new band, we’ve got new songs and stuff that we’re doing, I have a full girls’ trio now that I’ve added to the show. They will be doing a part in the show that is a full tribute to the Carter family that we’ve added. So it’s a whole new show, new video backgrounds, new everything, the logo is new, the band’s new, the girls are new, the whole show is new. I mean, you’ve gotta keep with the hits like “Folsom,” “Walk the Line,” and “Ring of Fire,” and the mainstay songs, but there’s a lot of new aspects to it.”
Barker is also ahead of the curve when it comes to his portrayal because of his respect for the man, which may not always be the case with more and more of the Cash tributes cropping up.
“There is unfortunately a lot more popping up, it’s not necessarily unfortunate that a lot more are popping up, it’s just that it’s unfortunate that like with the Elvis thing, over time I do feel it will become watered down,” Barker explained. “Eventually that’s going to happen, it’s inevitable. It’s a way to make a living doing music and when it arises like this, people take advantage of it — and eventually it becomes a watered down product, just the same way Elvis has become.
“A big star like Cash, that’s something that eventually happens,” he added. “As of right now, a lot of the ones doing it still seem to be pretty respectful of what Cash was about and what he was doing. But the bigger his name becomes, the more and more it’s probably going to get watered down, as time passes. That’s what we’re here for. Our show will never be a watered down caricature of Johnny Cash. I’ll always pay the money to have the best musicians and the best singers. It’s important.”
The fact that the “Man in Black” show hasn’t been to Laughlin in a couple of years, means both Barker and Cash fans are in for a new experience.
“Over the years, we’ve created a fan base there that seems to come back year after year, so I’m looking forward to this show,” he said. “We haven’t been there in two years, so I’m hoping the absence will bring back some of the people who have thinned out because they’ve seen the show so many times.
“The crowds are great that come there,” he added. “They seem to really enjoy the music and enjoy the Cash music especially, I mean, you can definitely tell they’re fans of the Cash music. They know the works, they know the songs, they’re always yelling them out on stage. It’s great to have actual Cash fans in the audience and night after night, they’re there. It’s always a great show and the crew there, who work with the sound and the lights, those guys are good dudes to work it. It’s just an easy place to work.
“We also like that Laughlin is centrally located for me and the band, which is all in L.A.,” he said. “The girls are all here in Vegas, so it’s nice to do something at home per se because it’s only about an hour drive for all of us, a couple of hours for the band. It’s so nice to have the sit-down that’s close to home like that, in the same time zone.
“It’s nice to come in and bring a new show into the Riverside because we’ve been there like six times now, six years, and usually for the most part, we’ve done the same show pretty much every year,” he added. “This year, finally, I get to come in and bring some new aspects to it people haven’t seen. It’ll be something fresh and new for people. We’re looking forward to being back down there.”
As far as new projects for Barker, this show is the thing.
“Right now I’m just focusing on the Cash thing,” he explained. “Like I said, I’ve taken it over on my own, and I’m kind of redeveloping it and redesigning it. It’s time consuming and financially it’s a big project. There’s all new costumes for the guys and the girls, there’s new videos, a new website, there’s tens of thousands of dollars that have gone into breaking off in my own, so that’s all I’m focusing on.
“We want it to be the best, there’s more and more guys coming out, so I’m striving hard and spending a lot of money to make sure my show maintains being the best,” he said. “It takes time and money and you gotta stay focused on it, otherwise, it’s starts getting complacent and somebody else will pass you up — and I can’t have that.”


Don’s Celebrity Theatre within the Riverside Resort

Wednesday-Sunday, Dec. 11-15 (7 p.m.)

See “Showtimes” for ticket info