To better impersonate one of country music's late superstars, David James haunts the thrift stores.
To create an authentic, 1960sera Johnny Cash, James gleans vintage suits from second-hand stores.
"I find all my best suits in Salvation Armys and stores like that," said the Nanaimo-based musician. "Some of them were originally quite expensive. I found a Hugo Boss suit for $10."
James and his band, Big River, will perform such Cash classics as "Folsom Prison Blues," "Ring of Fire" and "Walk the Line" in White Rock on Sunday, Dec. 30. Tickets are $42.50 for the show, at Coast Capital Playhouse.
James's online bio spins a yarn about how he discovered his talent for doing Cash. Late one night, he played "Ring of Fire" for bar patrons. The crowd was stunned by his baritone-voiced impersonation.
True? "Well, that's the fabricated story that goes on the site," James said.
The true story: James's girlfriend was favourably impressed one evening when he sang along to Walk the Line, the 2005 Cash bio flick.
"She said, 'Wow, you sound way closer to him than Joaquin (Phoenix).'"
Soon after, James had abandoned his weekend-warrior rock band to assemble a Johnny Cash act.
There are a few tricks to doing an authentic Cash impersonation. James says it's essential to put the letter H in front of words starting with W - so "what" becomes "hwhat" and "where" becomes "hwhere." It's an Arkansas speech habit, he says. This is so crucial, James even re-recorded a Johnny Cash tribute disc that he made before cottoning on to this detail.
It sounds like nitpicking, but Cash fans are a discerning bunch. James said he often meets fervent followers who, before the show, question his ability.
"Then they'll say, 'That was amazing that you did him. I think Johnny's looking down and he's proud you did him justice.'"
Like Cash, James was raised in a rural environment. He's from Tofield, a small town in central Alberta, where his father ran the Macleods store. "I grew up riding a lot of horses. I had friends who were pig farmers, cow farmers, wheat farmers - you name it."
He never met Johnny Cash, who died in 2003. But James does have an indirect link with the legendary performer. He knows Jonathan Holiff, whose late father Saul (a former Victoria resident) was Cash's personal manager. Holiff has produced a new documentary, My Father and the Man in Black, in which James plays a small role: he does a Cash-style voiceover.
In appreciation, Holiff gave James a prized piece of memorabilia: a Johnny Cash backstage pass from 1969-70.
James prefers to call his show a "tribute" rather than an impersonation. Other Cash impersonators open their sets by saying, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."
Not David James. "I don't do that. I open my show with, 'Hello . I'm almost Johnny Cash," he said, chuckling.
For details about the David James & Big River concert Dec. 30 in White Rock, call 604-536-7535 or visit www.whiterockplayers.ca. The 7: 30 p.m. show is presented by White Rock-based Rock.It Boy Entertainment, online at rockitboy.com.