The Bands Come Around

Six years ago, a hundred and a few folks packed their bundled bodies into The Shrunken Head on West Fifth Avenue and pressed their ears to the speakers. They were there for the simplest and most agreeable of reasons: to listen to the music gifted to us by a man born in Arkansas by the name of J. R. Cash.

Few figures in American art are as unimpeachable as Johnny Cash, a man so meteoric and mysterious in his early years that his eventual rebirth and rehabilitation feels downright mythical.

So it was that Brady Oxender and friends saw it proper to dedicate their time and talent to memorializing The Man in Black back in 2011 at the first Cash Only tribute show here in Columbus. We caught up with Oxender in the weeks leading up to the event and learnt quickly why he and his friends are still at it.

It’s silly to ask, “Why Johnny Cash?” But what does he mean to you and other musicians?

Johnny Cash is absolutely iconic as far as country music goes. But on top of that, you’re looking at a guy who had hits over, what—70 years? He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame…he did his first recordings at Sun Records next to Elvis Presley, and he did his last recordings covering Nine Inch Nails with Rick Rubin. He’s the everyman. He’s been representing American music for people’s entire lifetimes.

Kind of goes without saying. It’s amazing how many different kinds of people are cool with Johnny Cash.

He covered Bob Marley, Tom Petty, Depeche Mode, U2—a great number of those are definitive recordings. Some of those artists will admit that his covers are better than their originals.

What defines Cash Only? What’s the show like?

It’s typically 8-12 bands. This year it’s nine. A buddy of mine and I got together back in 2011 and just talked about how it would be cool to do a tribute concert. We sold out that first year. We’ve sold out every year since. You hear genuine covers; folks playing Cash songs like Cash played ’em, some folks putting their own twist on things. The best part is that we all play for free and it’s a charity show. We bring in a professional photographer and merchandise vendors. One time a year, one night—all out of a desire to do good and for the love of the music.

And the crowds? You must get a lot of different people.

You can’t put them into any one bucket. Not at all. You’ll have a grey-haired couple in tie-dye standing next to somebody in black leather with spikes next to a guy in a cowboy hat and a flannel shirt. But you can be sure everyone has a smile on their face.

Any good stories?

Last year, we expanded to two nights. We figured maybe the crowd could split and we wouldn’t have any capacity issues. So the second night, we’ve got 400 people. The fire marshal let us know we had to clear out about a hundred bodies or he’d shut us down. There were cops waiting outside with paddy wagons in case people had to be forcibly removed to clear the room. Our host got up on stage and explained the situation—asked if anyone would be willing to go outside so the show could go on.

Within minutes, we had a hundred people pay their tabs, take one for the team, and say their goodbyes. Some had been there the first night. Some had already heard their favorite song or seen the band they wanted to see. No cops, no issues. I don’t think that happens at most shows. I was terrified in the moment. It got pretty emotional seeing how kind people could be, how much mutual love there was.

That’s incredible. And all this at an outlaw country show.

Johnny Cash was the guy photographed giving the finger, who’d done drugs…but he was also the guy who performed at prisons because the inmates didn’t have any other form of entertainment, who talked about the plight of Native Americans before it was hip, the guy who despite everything was very religious and kind and peaceful. He was anything you wanted him to be.

It’s a great message in times like these. So where do you see the show going from here?

We’ve raised over $15,000 for local charities. We had around 120 people the first year, and we were up to 750 or so last year. We’re excited to move to Park Street Saloon this time around. There’ll definitely be more space.

My hope is to keep spreading the word. I can guarantee the musicians will show up, year after year, and play for free, as long as there’s a crowd to play for. Someday I’d love to see us in a larger venue. Wherever we go, you can bet it’ll be shoulder to shoulder near the stage, hot and sweaty, and everyone will love it.

It’s 10 dollars. Show me another event where you can see nine local acts in one night for that price. For my money, it’s the best bang for the buck you’re going to get. And the best part is that it’s all for charity.

Cash Only 7 will take place Saturday, February 18 at Park Street Saloon, 525 Park St. Doors open at 6 p.m., show goes from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. Tickets can be purchased online, at the door, or at Records Per Minute record store, 2579 N High St.