'The Spirit of Johnny Cash' coming to the Colonial Theatre



At the age of 10, Harold Ford used to ride his bicycle 10 miles each way between his home in Poestenkill, N.Y., and a nearby drive-in theater to watch the latest big-screen Hollywood musical.

He was positively enthralled.

"They let us stay at the foot of the projection booth. I'd look up at that big screen and think ‘I want to do that one day. I want to sing in front of people, lots of people,' " Ford recalled during a recent telephone conversation from his home in Greenwich, N.Y.

For the past 412 years, the 62-year-old Ford has been living his dream, engaging The Man in Black, Johnny Cash, in a tribute show he calls "The Spirit of Johnny Cash," a recreation of a Johnny Cash concert, which Ford is bringing to the Colonial Theatre Saturday evening at 7:30.

Joining Ford on stage will be Laura Lucy as Cash's wife, June Carter Cash, and Ford's band, Red Hot Cash Band.

The show features most of Cash's hits as well as material from the country foursome, The Highwaymen, which included Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.

Ford is quick to note that his performance is not an impersonation, it's an evocation.

Music has been a part of Ford's life for as long as he can remember.

"I've loved it all, not just Cash, not just country music, all of it," Ford said.

He began singing at the age of 3. He taught himself guitar at 15. At the prompting of friends and family, he performed at parties and family gatherings.

Those settings brought Ford no closer to his boyhood dream, so he left that dream behind and headed to the Pacific Northwest to attend college. He stayed out there after graduation and spent the next 23 years as a logger in various forest services before returning to the upstate New York region he knew as a child.

Ford acknowledges that had it not been for his fiance, Gina Grillo, now his agent and manager as well, "The Spirit of Johnny Cash" might not have happened.

In what became a Thursday night ritual, Grillo would nudge Ford to take his Martin guitar down the street to a coffeehouse in Greenwich and participate in the weekly open mic.

"I kept putting it off and putting it off," Ford said, "until, one week, she was so insistent I finally went."

People had often remarked how much he sounded like Johnny Cash when he sang; how much he looked like Cash. So, Ford performed two Cash classics, "Ring of Fire" and "Folsom Prison Blues." The audience response, he says, was tremendous.

About three weeks later, Ford got a call from a New York producer asking if he'd be interested in doing a few performances in the Johnny Cash musical "Ring of Fire."

"I did five shows," Ford said. "That's also where I met a couple of guys who are in my band."

And that's when "The Spirit of Johnny Cash" began to move Ford. They did a gig at a theater near Lake George, N.Y. They played a well-known country music club, Glad Rags, near Lake Placid in New York's Adirondacks. And it's grown from there. Ford and his crew have since played at theaters and clubs, large and small, across the United States and Canada, including a tour in British Columbia.

"We don't play bars," Ford said firmly, "never have."

On June 28, "The Spirit of Johnny Cash" will perform at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, a four-theater complex in Nashville.

"[Nashville is] about as high as you can get in [country] entertainment," Ford said. "This is my opportunity to show Nashville audiences what I'm all about; to deliver these songs with all the feeling I can."

Ford believes Cash's enduring popularity -- Cash died in 2003 -- is because "the public knows he spoke from the heart. His songs come from the way he saw the world.

"My hope is to do justice to the memory of Johnny Cash.

"The biggest reward for me," Ford said, "is being able to connect with the audience and bring out, with honesty, what I feel. When that happens it's an emotional and mental high beyond belief."

In concert

What: "The Spirit of Johnny Cash"

Who: Harold Ford, with Laura Lucy and Red Hot Cash Band

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield

Tickets: $39, $29

How: (413) 997-4444; www.berkshiretheatregroup.org or in person at the box office.


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