|Cash'd Out's Kevin Manuel, George Bernardo, Douglas Benson and Ryan Thomas at Folsom State Prison|
DOUGLAS BENSON of CASH'D OUT
Artists all over the world cover the songs of Johnny Cash. Bands of every genre know at least one of the country legend's tunes, and audiences recognize "Folsom Prison Blues," "A Boy Named Sue" and "Walk the Line" from their very first notes. With the popularity of his catalog and his being one of music's most iconic singing voices, reproducing Cash's sound as a tribute band is quite a daunting task. However, San Diego's Cash'd Out have dedicated the past eight years to paying homage to the Man in Black by playing his songs at venues across the nation.
No matter the town, the four members of Cash'd Out – vocalist Douglas Benson, guitarist Kevin Manuel, bassist Ryan Thomas and drummer George Bernardo – consistently win crowds over with their energetic performances of a repertoire of over 150 songs that span Cash's entire career. Cash'd Out has even been named Best Tribute Band four times by the San Diego Music Awards.
In addition to the band's skilled musicianship in recreating Cash's catalog, a huge factor in their success is the stunning precision with which Benson impersonates the artist's voice. What's so incredible is that Benson didn't even begin to hone his vocal abilities or even play guitar until a short time before forming Cash'd Out in 2005. The band's tale starts as Benson embarks on a camping trip to Baja California with some friends.
"The first Johnny Cash album that I ever listened to was a cassette tape of Hello, I'm Johnny Cash. A friend had brought it down to San Felipe where we were camping for the weekend. He left it in the tape player, and it played for 24 hours a day, all weekend long," Benson recalls. "It was during this trip when we were singing around the fire that someone first said that my voice sounded like Johnny Cash's. The song might have been 'Orange Blossom Special.' It's crazy, back then I didn't even know how to play a guitar. Everything really does happen for a reason."
After that camping trip and his friend's comment about the similarity of his voice and Cash's, Benson began teaching himself some chords on the guitar, became inspired with an idea to form a tribute band and placed an ad for band members in a local newspaper.
"When I first met Kevin and interviewed him to join the band, I only knew how to play and sing like four songs. I don't know what I was thinking," admits Benson with a laugh. "I played a song for him, and he said, 'That was pretty good, but you know you're playing it in the wrong key.' I said, 'Show me how to play it in the right key, and we'll go from there.' Even after all these years, I look at Kevin and wonder, 'What were you thinking when you decided to start this band with me?!"
Eventually Manuel, who was born in San Francisco but moved to San Diego at an early age, and Benson enlisted East Coast transplants Thomas and Bernardo to join the group.
"They give me a lot of grief, but I love them. They like teasing me a lot," chuckles Benson. "George has played with so many different bands and styles of music I can't even begin to name them all. Ryan plays bass with us but is a super good guitar player as well. He has another band called the Buzzbombs, and they do a lot of covers, a couple of originals that are 1950s style, Elvis kind of stuff. He's also an accomplished author. He writes mystery/horror novels."
When they're not traveling up and down the coast playing shows, Benson has a favorite bar that he likes to hang out at.
"The bar that I go to a lot is called Cherry Bomb. It's a dive bar with a great jukebox," he says. "I've been going there for almost 15 years."
As a native of San Diego County, Benson grew up surfing and listening to his favorite band at the time, the Smiths.
"Someday I would like to do a couple of their songs," Benson shares. "I want to try to figure out how Johnny Cash would have done them. I've been fiddling with some."
While Cash'd Out do perform some of the unique covers that Cash released in the American series, like Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," they mostly stick to his original material. Since 2005 they've performed for over a million people, and the thrill Benson experiences each time from sharing a passion for Johnny Cash's music with the audience never gets old.
"Every time we do 'Ring of Fire,' we get a huge crowd singing along with us. When the audience sings, the emotion that they give me, makes me tear up a lot of times," he confesses. "I love all of his songs though. It just depends what mood I'm in, [determining] which one's my favorite at that time. One I always tell people is my favorite is 'Wreck of the Old 97.' I just love the story that it tells and the way that he sang it, the emotion. I just like the way that he, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings tell a story every time they sing a song. Another thing I love about Willie Nelson is that it seems like he's always on tour."
Relentless touring is definitely a standard that Cash'd Out has set for itself. In this month alone, they played at two shows every weekend. Some of the most memorable performances they've given have been in front of Cash's family and friends. Cash's longtime drummer W.S. Holland sat in with the band for a Johnny Cash birthday celebration hosted by Bill Miller, Cash's friend and owner of JohnnyCash.com, at the Fender Museum in Corona, Calif.
"One show that really stands out the most is when Bill Miller brought one of Johnny's daughters, Cindy Cash, to a show in Hollywood a few years back," Benson remembers. "We performed the song 'Cindy, I Love You.' When I walked into the green room backstage, she turned around and said, 'My dad wrote that song for me when I was 18 years old, and I've never heard anybody cover it. You made me cry.' She took a necklace with a crystal locket on it from around her neck, put it on my neck and said, 'I want you to have this. There's a lock of my dad's hair inside of it.' She had cut some hair off his head when he was on the hospital bed during his last few days."
Moments like those fuel Benson's fire to entertain audiences with electrifying performances of Johnny Cash's music even more. Plans for the future include a Cash'd Out album and tours to the East Coast, Europe, Australia and Japan, a country where they've already caught the attention of a few new fans.
"My cousin that owns a surf company brought some of his Japanese reps to a show. When they went back to Japan they were telling people that they had seen Johnny Cash. Their friends were like, 'Dude, Johnny Cash has been dead for a while,'" Benson laughs, "but it was a pretty nice compliment."
Cash'd Out perform Feb. 15 at Spikes in Rosemead and Feb. 22 at Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach. For more information, visit cashdout.com.