Review: Ring of Fire (The Music of Johnny Cash)

The Grand Theatre’s new season has opened with a strum and a twang in homage to the music of Johnny Cash.There’s some buzz about this show possibly going on tour but for now, Ring of Fire is on at the Grand until November 2nd and it’s really good fun.  It plays like a concert as six “Johnnys” tell Cash’s life story with some spoken anecdotes but mostly via his music, with a live five-piece band on stage.  The spoken aspect is mainly confined to the first part of the first act and there are a few minutes at the start where I thought, if this is what it is all the way through, I don’t know if I’m on board. But once the music really kicked in, the production did too. Every one of the superb singers – three men and three women – are accomplished musicians who occasionally play a guitar, banjo, harmonica, the spoons and a washtub. He may have been branded a country artist but to this day, scads of rock musicians cite Cash as an influence.

Set against a simple backdrop with the band a part of the action, the singers weave the tale of a poor farmer’s son and his unlikely rise to recording star and musical icon. There are hearty laughs and some deep sadness, which I won’t give away, but I looked around after Jennifer Kee finished a plaintive version Sweet Bye and Bye and other patrons were also dabbing at their wet eyes.  The use of photos, including Johnny and June at London Gardens (where he proposed to her in 1968!), added another dimension of familiarity and warmed us to him further.

I had the privilege of meeting Johnny and June Carter Cash in the early 1980s.  I knew they were people of deep faith and that June had cleaned him up from a terrible drug addiction.  But I never knew how they met, how he got hooked on drugs or why he chose to perform in prisons. He wasn’t perfect but he was definitely interesting. Ring of Fire isn’t a full biography – his first wife isn’t even mentioned – but a romp through Cash’s deep music catalogue, hitting the highlights of his life and career. It’ll make you tap your foot and marvel at the tremendous talent and success of a man who started out in an ordinary, dirt poor life in Arkansas to become the legend known as the Man in Black.