I recently sat down over steak and eggs with Sky Conwell, the bandleader and face of 99 Years, Arizona's premier Johnny Cash tribute band, to discuss his admiration for the Man in Black.
“There's only two things I’m any good at--playin’ music and cookin’ a steak,” he says. “So it’s a good thing that music’s my job ‘cause I’d be fired from anything else.”
So far he is true to his word. He's great at both. Between delicious bites, we discuss his upcoming show at the Museum Club and his soulful, rowdy interpretation of the Man in Black’s legacy. We discuss the man's complexity, his myth and legend, and the man himself: “He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction” as his lifelong friend and confidant Kris Kristofferson famously put it in his 1971 song “The Pilgrim.”
Aaron Norris: When were you first introduced to Johnny Cash and what was it about him that caught your ear?
Sky Conwell: I first heard Cash as a kid, the first time when my parents brought home an old record of his. It really spoke to me. His music goes to a different level for me, and there's just something about it. I can't quite explain it, but he moves me like no other musician. Part of it is the way he seems to live and inhabit a song is like no one else. He becomes the song in a way the average person can relate to, and I think because he believes in what the song is saying so fully, you relate to the story and believe it too.
We were talking earlier about JC’s life, and I think he lived his life not just as an artist but as art itself. Tell me a little more about how he inspired you as a person and an artist.
He's a huge hero of mine for a lot of other reasons, but it all boils down to the fact that I just really love his songs and everything he stands for. He's a great songwriter, and he's an amazing song interpreter. He took a lot of folk songs and breathed new life into them, turned them into his own. He was a great storyteller, too, and, I think, one of the greatest performers of all time. He experienced all of life's challenges and overcame. Through each stage he changed with the times but never changed who he was. That’s integrity. He was a rebel but one with a cause; that was his real appeal from the beginning. He was kind of hard to read for a lot of people [and] he really had two very different sides to him. First of all, he was a badass and, at times, legendary drug addict and crazy man--everyone knows that, there are a million stories--but he was also a soft-spoken country gentlemen. He was a true Christian, the kind who deeply loved the common man and especially the hurt and broken ones, the poor folks and the outcasts. That's why he did all those shows for prisoners. It was his way of saying, “I get it. You are endeared to me and I understand you because you are just like me.” He was the first to ever do that, and the record company was totally against it--they almost dropped him from the label--but he did it anyway and it turned out to be his best-selling album of the ‘60s! He lived his life with both passion and compassion for others--but he never lost his vision. He always did exactly what he wanted to do, in art and in life. I am just honored to be able to do my best to pay tribute to him.
What about the Rick Rubin years toward the end of his life? I dig all that stuff, but some ‘purists’ hate it and only listen to the early stuff.
You’re right, a lot of Cash tributes won't even play the Rick Rubin recordings, but not us. I love that era--we do the whole history of his material--all 50 years! Those sessions saved Johnny’s career and brought him a brand new, younger audience. Almost every kind of person dug it, but particularly the punk rock scene embraced it at the time. And that was totally appropriate because he was original punk rocker! He was music's biggest rebel by far when he was in his early years. Being embraced by the young crowd all those generations later was a real thrill for him. Kind of brought everything full circle. It also taught me something valuable. I came to realize that no matter how good or bad a song, it can almost always be improved. In fact, I don't think there is any song you could give Cash to do--even the worst pop song--that he wouldn't make better. That's inspiring to me in my other projects too. It empowers me and inspires me to take chances with my art.
You play out more than anyone I know. You front six bands, play solo and do an average of eight shows a week--sometimes three in a day. Where does 99 Years fit as far as a priority?
99 Years is my favorite band I’m in right now. We have so much fun and the guys I play with, Tony Cocilovo on stand-up doghouse bass and Mike Hutchinson on drums, are amazing musicians and make it easy for me to put on a real authentic Johnny Cash show. In order to do that you not only have to be great at your instrument, but you have to be a big fan of Cash and be able to play like his musicians did. We take all of that very seriously. I’m lucky to have those guys. They have a certain something special and we all have the same vision for the band.
You also play a lot of different kinds of places with 99 Years--bars, casinos, dinner shows. How do you gage what to play in all those different settings?
We just feel it out. I don't even use a set list. I just love to get a feel for the people--read the room and play what they want to hear. I've gotten pretty good at that. So, every show is different. We’ll take requests, whatever the crowd’s into. We love the challenge. We know just about every Cash song recorded--maybe not all of them, but most. We’d be pretty hard to stump. I know we can do at least 90 percent... so come to the Museum Club and challenge me. If you can name a Cash song I don’t know I’ll buy you a drink.
What's your favorite part of playing in 99 Years?
I’m just like the people who come. We all just want to have fun! That's the most important thing to us--we really have a great time and it's contagious! When we have a blast on stage, the audience does too. Come and see for yourself.
What better place to see a show like this than the recently reopened legendary Route 66 honky-tonk, The Museum Club. The place is just drenched in history, and almost every great classic country icon has played there over the years when it was the only oasis on Route 66 between Amarillo, Gallup and sunny California.
So go to the Museum Club at 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 2, to meet up with all the diverse, hardcore JC fans, and have some fun. Take a trip back in time and see “The Man in Black” come to life in the flesh.