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Ben Welburn - CASH

Local musician Ben Welburn returns to home turf this weekend and brings with him the band that forms his touring tribute, CASH, paying respect to the man in black.  

On the CASH website I learn that Ben grew up around music, all sorts of different genres, before Cash really found a place in his life. Enquiring as to what other music besides that of Johnny Cash he is partial to, I learn that he listens to all kinds of music, and unsurprisingly perhaps, is not much of a manufactured music lover.  "I love rootsy stuff, anything from the heart. I don't get people trying to make music to proove a point. I've always had a love for metal and punk. I listen to a lot of country and a lot of power groove metal lately! Anything that makes me move, emotionally or physically, I like."

But Ben didn't immediately start out as a front man and guitarist.  "I started playing drums at age 11 - and still am! My parents always supported my love for it - my Mum would drive me there and back to every rehearsal - sometimes 3 different bands in as many if not more times a week - and also to the gigs! I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to play in championship brass bands which took me all over the UK and even into Europe, playing drums.

I was always influenced by players I was with who were at a better standard - no matter what instrument they were playing. I always played around on guitar but never really took it seriously - when I was listening to the country music I was hearing the lyrics - they either made you laugh or made you cry. I was more into the 'strumming storyteller' type songs.  

Questioning the fact that it had taken some coaxing from friends and relatives to get him to take on the Cash persona / performance, I wonder what was pivotal in finally deciding to go for it. "Moving to London and not being able to afford a car to carry my drums around in! A guitar was easier to transport! Haha!  I guess the pivotal moment to take it a level up from the bars, was being in a room with musicians that were willing to give it a shot - to see where it could go, if anywhere!

The persona thing came naturally, I guess - I don't try to be anyone else, ever - but I've always listened to my heroes in country and I believe I understand where they're coming from lyrically - and, as with all fans of music - you can connect. But I don't ever think - 'Oh - what would Cash do or say before this song?' for example.  I'm always myself - just with an american accent - you have to be authentic without it being like that TV show, Stars in your Eyes. It wouldn't work.

Once I had my arm twisted into taking it seriously, I got together the friends around me who I knew would be good for it and we jammed a couple of songs - 'Folsom Prison Blues' and 'Walk the Line', and we had fun with it! We did a few gigs in some bars around London - but it was a gig at the 12 Bar that got us a gig supporting a great band called The Doors Alive at the O2 Academy Islington; that made it take off. We've been going for nearly 4 years now.

Curious to know a little more about this ethos of not wanting to go out and 'be' Johnny Cash, Ben elaborates for me, explaining that to him, Johnny Cash (amongst others), is too big an influence on his life and musical taste for him to go on stage and say, 'Hello, I'm Johnny Cash'.  "I am not him and never will be. As a band we have to be stylistically authentic, but it is a case of paying respect to the Man in Black. It's an honour to play in front of people who dearly love his songs and music - and I want them to hear what they came for.

But we do play some songs with a little more fire. And people seem to enjoy that. Imagine the Johnny Cash from the days when he was touring with Sun Records, the young Johnny Cash, but imagine he was doing it in 2014 - I guess that's a good summation of what we are doing!"

I venture that Ben fortuitously seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to Johnny Cash, and wonder what sort of work goes into the look and style of the shows. Laughing, Ben reveals that not a lot of work goes into his look.  "Although I aren't very good at getting the hair right all the time, so sometimes that takes too long! Again, we just try and look authentic without feeling uncomfortable. What I wear on stage is my "Sunday best', so I'm not wearing anything I wouldn't wear any other time. The rest of the band now wear white shirts and blue jeans, apart from Kiran (the June Carter of the band), who again is stylistically authentic with her hair and her dresses. But I don't know much about dresses..."

Moving on to the performances themselves, Ben tells me that they sometimes play to what they call a 'Ring of Fire' crowd, seeming to play for around 75 minutes before getting to that song and people's ear's suddenly prick up - but that, generally, most people know all the songs and have a lot of fun. "It's scary, yet heart warming, when you're playing to a crowd, and there are young teenagers singing every word to every song you're playing - even the lesser known ones. Audiences love it when Kiran sings, she has an amazing voice, so we put in a couple of duets and a slow one - people always want to hear 'Jackson'; we add some backing vocals to some songs as well, to fill them out a bit more."  He also reveals that, apart from the lyrical content and laid back approach to Johnny Cash's story telling, there is simply something about his voice - "something that just makes you listen, no matter what. I still listen to a lot of Johnny Cash - but there are times when I've heard a little too much! I remember walking around London one time, and I had a playlist of everything I had on shuffle - metal, punk, folk, whatever, and one of his songs came on; when I heard it, I was just thrown into another atmosphere.  Any good performer can do that, at any time, but with Johnny Cash - he's like your Dad when yours ain't around.

I hope I don't sound too cliché when I say this - but I remember every gig and every one has its moments. I can't pick one 'best gig', but playing Glasgow O2 Academy for the first time to a sell out crowd blew us away, same in Bristol; the Shetland Isles was in front of a sell out crowd of 1300 people, and to have that amount of energy supporting the band is indescribable. The biker festivals are always fun. The smaller the venue the scarier it is. I always get nervous."

Ben has mentioned on the CASH website that he feels an affinity with the Johnny Cash attitude, the outlaw persona. Digging for specifics from him, he laughingly responds, "Gotta be careful here!"  He goes on to explain that basically, "it's the attitude of being yourself no matter what. Punk. In country music, 'Outlaw' is a business term, where the artists fought for creative control of their music from the country music establishment, and won. It doesn't mean having tattoos or being a big drinker, although some of them do fit the stereotype. As www.savingcountrymusic.com states: 'Outlaw is a state of mind. An approach based on strong willed principles.' That's the connection."

Moving briefly into more personal territory, Ben, who grew up locally on a farm, describes how if he weren't touring with CASH, he'd probably be living in the country, farming pigs and cutting grass.  As to the future, he excitedly reveals he is getting married this October.  Also that "we are wanting to get a lot busier with the band and take it out of the UK, see what Europe has to offer. We are always trying to keep the set list fresh with requests and different dynamics, too. I would love to do some charity gigs, play overseas for the Armed Forces - various irons are in the fire, we're just waiting to see which ones get hot..."

See CASH at The Spa Pub, Victoria Road, Scarborough, Friday 27th June, from 8.30pm.  www.cashbandlondon.co.uk