Back in Black

Some singers are lucky enough to resemble or sound like a particular star, which can lead to numerous opportunities in the music industry. Shawn Barker has the good fortune, and talent, to impersonate two of the biggest stars in music history — Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
Barker was always into music, but he fell into both of these roles somewhat unexpectedly.
“It just kind of came about by accident,” Barker said. “The Elvis tribute came from an Elvis impersonator contest put on by the radio station in town. I had dressed as Elvis one time for a Halloween costume, so the guys I was working for at Chevrolet said, ‘Go get in the contest and we’ll go down there and have some drinks and it’ll be fun.’ More than anything, it was just for a fun night out. Well I ended up winning it and then people started hiring me.”
Barker had a knack for playing Elvis, so he decided to try out for the “Million Dollar Quartet” Broadway show, but his audition took a surprising turn.
“Originally I was sending in my demo to cast as Elvis, and the director contacted me and asked me to send in an audition reel for the part of Johnny Cash, which I had never done before,” Barker said. “I wanted to get into the play so I went ahead and recorded it and sent it in and they cast me as Johnny Cash. So I went out to L.A. and Hollywood to work on the play with them, and from there it kind of just developed into my own show.”
Moving on from Elvis, Barker had to learn to become the Man in Black.
“I did a lot of character study, like I read his biographies and things like that to try to get an idea of who he was and why he was the way he was on stage,” Barker said. “Hours and hours of listening to his music and watching any videos you can get to see how he performed on stage, trying to get the clothes down and the sound of his music.”
Barker continuously puts in the work to make sure his show is the most authentic Cash tribute on the market and he spares no expense in recreating the look as well.
“We’ve worked really hard on putting together a good show,” he said. “I’ve been doing this almost 20 years now. We’re very particular about the musicians that are on stage. My band works real hard to be as authentic as possible. We’re very particular about the way we look, the way we present ourselves. We spend a lot of money on clothes and costumes. My guitar — because Johnny played a Gibson J200 guitar — I have a custom-built Gibson J200 guitar with Johnny Cash’s pick guard that was $5,000. But if you’re going to do it, then that’s the investment that you have to make. My guys wear full Scully Western clothing that’s expensive. We put a lot of thought into the videos and song selection — there’s a lot that goes into it. If you’re going to present the level of show that we do, then there’s a cost to do that. But it pays off in the long run and people do recognize it.”
His Man In Black show spans Cash’s entire career, including his start at Sun Records.
“We cover it all, everything from when he first started at Sun Records — we even do a Sun Records set,” Barker said. “It’s three or four songs with just the guitar, a standup bass and snare drum — no fancy lights or backup or anything like that. It’s just me and the three guys, kind of the way he started with the Tennessee Three.”
Barker has changed up the flow of his show since his last performance in Laughlin, but the hits everyone wants to hear aren’t going anywhere.
“There might be some different songs that we have in the show and we open and close the show differently than we used to,” he said. “But when you’re doing a tribute, you kind of have to stick to what everybody knows. There’s tons of Johnny Cash songs that I would like to do because they’re just fun for me, but the audience would just be left scratching their heads, because the guy had 1,500+ songs. So you have to kind of stick with the ‘Folsom,’ ‘Walk the Line,’ ‘Ring of Fire,’ ‘Boy Named Sue,’ ‘Man In Black’ — those songs have to be there, because that’s what everybody knows. When you’re doing a limited amount of time, you have to get those in there. You have to tribute the way that people remember the artist, and those are the songs that people remember. And you want them to sing along. They can’t sing along and enjoy it if they don’t know what you’re singing.”
Barker and the band are coming back to Laughlin, where they have been a mainstay for more than a decade. Man in Black will play the Riverside Resort at 7 p.m. March 8-12.