‘Ring of Fire’ a tribute to Johnny Cash through his music

First things first about “Ring of Fire,” the jukebox musical featuring the songs of Johnny Cash comi
Steve Benoit, center, is joined by, from left, Jeremy Wood and Scott Stacy in “Ring of Fire,†coming to the Mainstage at Proctors, opening Friday.
Steve Benoit, center, is joined by, from left, Jeremy Wood and Scott Stacy in “Ring of Fire,†coming to the Mainstage at Proctors, opening Friday.

First things first about “Ring of Fire,” the jukebox musical featuring the songs of Johnny Cash coming to Proctors 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Nobody actually portrays or impersonates Cash, the legendary man in black and one of only two individuals (the other is Elvis) voted into both the Rock and Roll and Country Music halls of fame as performers.

Steve Benoit, however, admits that every now and then he just can’t help himself.

“I’m definitely not a tenor, so I can get a low register if I really want to,” said Benoit, a Canadian-born singer/songwriter who has called Nashville his home for the past 10 years. “I do sing bass, I have pretty good range, and I’ve been emulating him a little bit for years singing his songs. At times, you can’t help but take a little bit of what he does and have a little fun with it.”

Ring of Fire

WHERE: The Mainstage at Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

WHEN: 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday

HOW MUCH: $45-$20

MORE INFO: 346-6204

There is no traditional story line and very little dialogue in “Ring of Fire,” the show instead relying on more than 30 songs closely associated with Cash as performed by eight musicians and eight vocalists. Benoit is one of three male lead vocalists in the show, having earned his shot by reading about an audition in Amarillo, Texas.

“I saw it advertised in a music paper. So I just showed up with my guitar, sang a few songs, and I guess I fit the part,” said Benoit. “The first thing they said was, ‘Don’t try to sound like him.’ So, none of us try to sound like him. It’s more of a tribute to him, his life and his music.”

The emphasis is clearly on the latter — Cash’s music.

“There is some dialogue that tries to tie some of the songs together, but basically it’s the music telling the story,” said Benoit. “A lot of the songs he wrote and sang had great stories to them, and much of the spoken word in the show comes right out of his autobiography. They’re his words.”

On heels of hit movie

“Ring of Fire” had a short run on Broadway in March and April of 2006, coming out on the heels of the highly acclaimed 2005 movie biopic of Cash, “Walk the Line.” The film won an Oscar for Reese Witherspoon in the role of June Carter Cash and was nominated for four others.

“I really thought they did a great job with the movie, and while that pretty much covers the relationship between Johnny and June, ‘Ring of Fire’ covers his whole life,” said Benoit. “I guess maybe the show wasn’t a great fit for Broadway, so then they got a new director and a new cast to take it across the country. Maybe it was a better idea to take it on the road than to stick it in New York City. With its roots in country music, maybe it plays better throughout the Midwest and South. We’ve been all over, and I can tell you, the audiences really seem to love it.”

Cash, who died in 2003, won 11 Grammys, including the Lifetime Achievement Grammy. He had 48 songs reach the Billboard Top 100 list, and among his biggest singles were “I Walk the Line,” “Jackson,” “I’ve Been Everywhere,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and “Ring of Fire.” His autobiography, “Man in Black,” has sold over 1.5 million copies.

Cash fan

Benoit has been a Cash fan since growing up in northern Ontario, although he considers himself more of a folk and rock ’n’ roll singer than a country artist.

“Canadian music has always leaned toward folk music,” said Benoit. “So, I’ve always been a fan of that kind of music, the soft rock stuff that Gordon Lightfoot or Neil Young might do.”

When this tour is done at the end of May, Benoit will have a couple of different options on how to spend his time.

“This is the first time I’ve ever done anything on the stage, but I’ve always been a fan of [Cash] so it seems like a pretty good fit,” he said. “When we’re done with this in May we’ll see what happens. I hope to focus on my own music, and I’d like to get back with my band and get out on the road.

“If that doesn’t happen, I’m a happily married father of three, and they’re looking forward to having me around for a while. I’ve also done some teaching at an art school since we moved to Nashville, and I was trained as a graphic artist. I had been doing a lot of touring when I was younger, but when the kids came around my priorities shifted.”

Gravitating to music

A graduate of the University of London in Ontario, Benoit was always interested in performing.

“I started singing in bands in high school, and that’s when I picked up the guitar that my father had sitting around the house and taught myself how to play it,” said Benoit. “I started writing songs in college, but I was always thinking about the real world, and that’s why I got my degree in graphic design. This has been a great experience, and as the kids get a little older maybe I can concentrate more on my music.”

Before he began his run with “Ring of Fire,” Benoit and his band (the Box Elders) had just released a CD, “What Ever Happened to the Drive-Ins.”

“It’s basically American and Canadian folk music,” he said. “I think that’s what I do best.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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