James Tamelcoff never set out to be Johnny Cash, but by paying tribute to the original outlaw, he's beginning to find his own voice.
The young Virginia musician was cutting his teeth in his local music scene almost two years ago, playing with several bands and covering different artists. Someone suggested to him that he should put together a Johnny Cash tribute show, due to his uncanny vocal resemblance to the Man in Black.
While reluctant at first, Tamelcoff, 19, put the show together in his hometown of Culpeper, Va. When the show sold out and the response was overwhelming, he decided he might have something on his hands. He took the show to Memphis, Tenn., and even into Sun Studios to record the set in the very room where Cash himself recorded so much of his early music.
The Cash Unchained tribute show was born in the spring of 2016 and has been picking up steam ever since. This year, Tamelcoff and company have booked more shows and bigger venues than last year.
"Ever since I could understand what music was, I was just really drawn to the sound," Tamelcoff said. "That train. That tick-tock rhythm. It's a sound that, when you talk to people who are Johnny Cash fans, the first thing they'll say is, I really like that sound, it's different than everyone else's. Unfortunately, there's not enough people today keeping that sound alive and reproducing it the way it should be.
"It just so happens, people think I sound like Johnny Cash, which is cool. At the same time, we're still showing our artistic ability through our instrumentation. Johnny Cash never played lead guitar, but I am the lead guitar player of the group. That's a cool little thing that we do.
"We want to take something from the 1950s and sync it in 2018, and people say, we thought we were there when it happened, essentially. That's the response we've been getting. That's a key factor in building a good reputation as a tribute band."
Tamelcoff built his version of the Tennessee Three, Cash's longtime backing band, out of the musicians he'd been working with in his hometown. Prior to the tribute show, Tamelcoff had a rockabilly band with his father. He took his bass player from that band and his cousin to play drums. Throughout the multiple set show, Tamelcoff has other musicians step in to play various roles as well.
The tribute show spans Cash's extensive and prolific discography. The opening set kicks off with the Sun Studio tracks and expands into the early 1960s albums. June Carter makes an appearance as well. After a break, the second set picks up in the late '60s and heads into the Highwaymen era, the country supergroup Cash formed with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in the mid-1980s. Tamelcoff even gets into Cash's late stuff, which the man himself rarely performed live.
"A lot of those later songs that Johnny never got a chance to do live, we really reproduce those studio cuts live on stage," Tamelcoff said. "People will come up and say, we always wanted to hear Johnny do these songs live; we believe this is the closest we can get to seeing that."
For Tamelcoff, the experience of paying tribute to Cash has opened his mind to how influential the outlaw was to all of music. As he grows into his own as a songwriter, Tamelcoff is using this tribute experience to set the stage for a future as a working musician.
"I've realized the influence that Johnny Cash's music has had on other genres of music," Tamelcoff said. "You take heavy metal, jazz, blues, pop, hip-hop, you name it. These guys have all come out and said that Johnny Cash's music will outlive everything we're doing because of how iconic and timeless it is.
"When I begin my songwriting experience, I am going to see his patterns of songwriting and the storytelling. Essentially for me, a young artist, doing Johnny's music has given me the opportunity to experience what it's like touring and selling tickets, versus just playing for a cover charge at a bar. It's breaking me into a higher level of entertainment and performance. It's helping me build a fan base in markets I might not be able to on my own right now."
IF YOU GO
What: Cash Unchained
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 5
Where: Tybee Post Theater, 10 Van Horne Ave.