Tuesday, March 25, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Playing for tips on a karaoke stage in a casino cafe wasn’t exactly what he had in mind when he decided to seek fame and fortune under the bright lights of Las Vegas.
But you can find the Johnny Cash tribute artist and his two-piece band at the Sahara’s NASCAR Cafe, where race cars hang from the ceiling and race-related posters adorn the walls, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. most Wednesdays through Mondays. They’re paying dues while they survive on free meals, gratuities and CD sales.
Jackson Cash — his stage name — is confident he sounds more like Johnny Cash than anyone else out there.
He just needs to convince the right people.
“Nobody even comes close to me,” the 53-year-old native of Salt Lake City says.
Jackson Cash began performing in bars as soon as he was old enough to enter one, the only constant being country songs. “I sang more Waylon and Willie than I did Johnny,” he says.
His life story could be a country song. His mother put him up for adoption at birth in Salt Lake City, “because it was the right thing to do at the time,” he says. His adoptive father died in 1979, his adoptive mother in 1992.
He wondered about his real mother most of his life. A dozen years ago he began searching for her in earnest, even writing a song, “Dear Mom,” in hopes that it would get some airtime on the radio and she would hear it and find him.
She didn’t hear it, but an employee of the adoption service did and told him his mother could be found in Las Vegas, where she still lives.
At the happy reunion 11 years ago his mother told him that he has four sisters — one in Las Vegas and three in Idaho. He also learned that his mother and siblings are amateur musicians. All play guitar.
A couple of years ago Jackson Cash decided to try to cash in on the Cash sound. At the time he had only four Cash songs in his act. But the biopic “Walk the Line” sparked new interest in the legendary singer who died in 2003 and tribute artists were popping up all over.
“One guy doing a Cash tribute wanted $5,000 a night plus rooms and food and expenses,” he says. “I thought, man that’s something.”
Initially Jackson Cash, who stands about 5 feet 9 inches, was concerned his physical stature might be a drawback, even though he has a craggy, lived-in face that makes him look like Johnny Cash.
But then he saw Joaquin Phoenix, who stands 5-8, play Cash.
“I thought if he could do it, I could do it,” Jackson Cash says. He dyed his brown hair black, studied the history of Cash and began learning songs from the vast musical library the Man in Black created during a career that lasted almost 50 years.
Jackson Cash took his act to Nashville and failed to ignite a ring of fire. He says he was about to give up on the idea when he was at a truck stop in Cheyenne, Wyo., and a stranger said he looked and sounded so much like Johnny Cash he should go to Branson, Mo.
Taking that as a sign, he headed for Branson last year and landed a theater gig that lasted several months. While there he met and impressed the real Cash’s sister, Joanne, who was appearing on evangelist Jim Bakker’s streaming video show. She invited him to join her on the show and when he sang “Folsom Prison Blues” her jaw dropped, her hands shook and tears came to her eyes, a reaction captured on tape and seen on YouTube.
When the season ended, Cash decided it was time to head for Las Vegas.
“Branson was too slow-paced for me, and they don‘t treat musicians all that well there,” he says. “Besides, there’s a whole lot more money in Las Vegas.”
Before he left, he hooked up with Tom Pierce — an upright bassist who plays a lot like Cash’s original bassist, Marshall Grant — and Dan Swartslander, who idolizes Cash’s original guitarist, Luther Perkins.
Pierce and Swartslander were professional musicians from Iowa whose paths frequently crossed through the years. They happened to cross in Branson just when Jackson Cash was looking for two performers for his Vegas adventure. Pierce sold his car and bought a van that would hold the three of them and all of their equipment, and they headed west.
“Music is all about taking chances,” says Swartslander, who taught himself to play guitar at the age of 5 and has knocked around the music business his whole life. “If you don’t take a chance, you’re never going to know.”
Jackson Cash had visions of someone recognizing his talent and of quickly landing a gig in the same vein as the Fab Four’s Beatles tribute show or Trent Carlini’s Elvis tribute, both at the Sahara.
“When we got here we had 300 bucks to our name, just enough to get a little motel room in Henderson,” Cash says. “We took turns sleeping on the floor.”
They made the rounds — hotels, casinos, nightclubs. Anyplace there was music, they tried to get an audition.
“We couldn’t find anybody that would even let us set up for free,” he says.
They were about out of money and food and luck when Scott Wade, manager of the NASCAR Cafe at the Sahara, agreed to listen to a CD they had made.
“He said he couldn’t pay us right now but he said he’d feed us, let us play nights as long as we wanted for tips and we could sell our CDs,” Cash says. “We’d be able to showcase the show for agents and anyone else who wanted to check us out.”
The stage at the NASCAR Cafe is small, easy to overlook, a place that mostly is used by the karaoke crowds on an irregular basis. But it could be a launching pad for Jackson Cash and his backup.
“I just wanted to help out a brother,” Wade said. “They are good.”