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Kenosha News | February 15, 2007

Cash Man
Johnny Cash tribute artist to play Brat Stop on Saturday

By Bill Robbins

Hello, he's Johnny Combs.

The real Man in Black has moved on to that big Folsom Prison in the sky, but Johnny Combs stills hears that train a comin'.

Combs is a Johnny Cash tribute performer who sings uncannily like the leather-faced, bass-and-baritone-voiced Cash, who made an indelible mark on American country music with treasures like "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire" and "Jackson," which he sang with his wife, June Carter Cash.

"I've pretty much devoted my life to performing Johnny Cash songs," Combs said in a telephone interview with the Kenosha News.

A Cincinnati resident who was born in West Virginia, Combs retains the southern drawl.

"I started playing his songs when I was in the Army, and I realized my voice sounded just like his," said Combs.

"So I would play Johnny Cash songs constantly," he said. "I was so serious about it I would not play my guitar unless I was dressed in black. It was like I was putting myself in the spirit of things, so I could get the feel."

Combs spent 11 years in the Army, and after he got out and returned to Cincinnati he began playing Cash songs publicly at, contrastingly enough, area honky-tonks and churches.

The recently retired school custodian has played Cash tribute shows for more than two decades, performing songs from all periods of Cash's life. He's doing some touring, and will appear for the second time at the Brat Stop on Saturday, Feb. 17.

Intriguingly, Combs met Cash in the early 1980s when the country icon was filming a TV movie, "The Pride of Jesse Hellam," in Cincinnati.

"I was dressing in black and had my big Johnny Cash International Fan Club button on," Combs said. "I told him I played nothing but his songs."

Cash autographed Combs' guitar, then made a surprising, and somewhat ironic, comment.

"He told me to be myself," Combs said.

For the next few years, Combs wrestled with exactly what Cash meant. And finally he came to terms with it.

"When I sing Johnny Cash songs I am being myself," he said. "I can sing Ricky Nelson or Fats Domino songs and I'll sound like Johnny Cash singing Ricky Nelson or Fats Domino songs. That's my natural voice."

Combs, who performs with a backup band, is completing a CD of original songs, which he expects to release soon.

"So it's kind of come full circle," he said. "I sound like Johnny Cash naturally, and I'm recording my own songs. I'm being myself and at the same time I'm carrying on the Johnny Cash tradition."

Still, sometimes he feels like a musical medium.

"I feel like his spirit is with me when I'm on stage," Combs said. "It's almost like he's doing the show instead of me he's working through me to get his songs out."