Anyone who’s been to such iconic Nashville music venues as Station Inn, The Bluebird or the Listening Room knows that Music CIty is famous for a good old fashioned pickin’ session where a group of talented musicians, singer and songwriters gather to simply share their love of music with an impromptu jam. With it’s musical theatre roots somewhere between a jukebox musical and a songwriter’s night, Studio Tenn Managing Director Jake Speck and Artistic Director Matt Logan, along with frequent Studio Tenn Music Director Don Chaffer, collaborated to present the company’s first-ever LEGACY SERIES entry, THE HANK LEGACY, celebrating the music of Hank Williams during their 2013/2014 season. In the years since, Studio Tenn has presented subsequent LEGACY SERIES entries honoring Johnny Cash and Ray Charles to rave reviews from critics and fans alike. Of their LEGACY SERIES, the CASH LEGACY is hands-down my personal favorite, so you can imagine my delight that this year they’re revisiting the CASH LEGACY. Adding to the iconic status of the LEGACY SERIES, this year’s CASH LEGACY features several new performers, including Mandy Barnett, known to many for her gorgeous portrayal of Patsy Cline in the stage musical ALWAYS, PATSY CLINE; Carrie Tillis, accomplished actress/singer/songwriter–as versed in opera as she is twang, who just so happens to be daughter of country music living legend, Mel Tillis; Grammy and Dove-winning artists, Ashley Cleveland and Mike Farris, as well as aforementioned LEGACY SERIES Music Director Don Chaffer and a few familiar Studio Tenn performers. As if that weren’t enough. This year’s CASH LEGACY will take to the hallowed stage of the Mother Church of Country Music, the legendary Ryman Auditorium on March 31 & April 1 for two nights only! Deep in rehearsals for their upcoming all-too-brief run, I recently chatted with Mandy, Carrie, Ashley, Mike and Don for the latest installment of my recurring celebrity interview feature, Rapid Fire 20 Q.
RAPID FIRE 20 Q with cast and music director of Studio Tenn’s THE CASH LEGACY
Rapid Fire with Mandy Barnett of Studio Tenn’s THE CASH LEGACY
JONATHAN PINKERTON: How did your involvement with Studio Tenn’s THE CASH LEGACY come about?
MANDY BARNETT: I was approached a few months ago about doing the show. I have heard so many great things about Studio Tenn and their Legacy Series, I was intrigued and honored they asked me to be part of it.
JP: THE CASH LEGACY won’t be your first time to honor Johnny Cash. Back in 2002, your duet with Chuck Mead of Cash and June Carter’s “Jackson” appeared on “Dressed in Black: A Tribute to Johnny Cash”. What’s your fist memory of Cash’s music?
MANDY BARNETT: Just hearing him on the radio like everyone else, but I did meet Johnny and June in the 90’s at The Ryman Auditorium and I went to a party at their house one time on the lake. They were very warm people and it was a thrill to meet them both.
JP: Of course many of your fans know you for your brilliant performance as another legend of country music, Miss Patsy Cline, as you originated and occasionally revisit the eponymous role in the jukebox musical, ALWAYS, PATSY CLINE. What is it about artists like Cline and Cash that keep them as popular today as when they were at the height of their careers?
MANDY BARNETT: You don’t have to be a country fan to like either Cline or Cash. Their music appeals to everyone, any age, any class. It’s just great music.
JP: Having known you as long as I have, and being fortunate enough to call you my friend, you know I could have done all 20 questions with you, but alas, I’ve got to wrap our chat and move on to conversations with four of your CASH LEGACY co-stars. So, one last one…of the songs in the show, do you have a favorite that stands out, or perhaps one omitted that you wish were included in THE CASH LEGACY?
MANDY BARNETT: I really like “Flesh and Blood”. It’s not a song that I knew but the combination of mine, Carrie’s and Laura’s voices sounds very similar to Dolly, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. That was surprising and it’s a really beautiful sound. It’s nice to sing harmony with great singers and of course, I like to sing a little bass…
Rapid Fire with Carrie Tillis of Studio Tenn’s THE CASH LEGACY
JP: Like Mandy, who I just spoke with, I’ve known you for a few years now. So, I gotta ask…how does the daughter of Country Music Living Legend, Mel Tillis go on to study opera, live in New York, then return her physical and musical hereditary roots to fully and beautifully embrace the twang of country music?
CARRIE TILLIS: The short answer is….it was all in there, Or all in me I should say. From the time I was young I kept following the things I loved- which was theatre. I did every play I could and by the time I was off to college, there was no doubt what I wanted to study. That however was the happy accident that also led me to opera and New York…training and school often lead you into classical territory. I figured I’d give it the best shot I had and realized I had some good chops for it. If you listen to my Dad’s rich and full voice (outside of the stutter!) you will realize where my capability came from–genetically–to use my voice for legit musical theater or opera. But that is also how I have been able to fully embrace who I am and come home, literally and, then vocally. And my Dad taught me everything I know about stage presence and timing. I just get to relax in that home place that is so natural and welcome in the LEGACY shows or shows like BATTLE OF FRANKLIN. In fact, the LEGACY shows have been quite a bridge for me – bringing my love of theater together with my “country music pedigree”. Nothing makes me happier than to be home in Nashville and working – putting it all together this way. Studio Tenn has given me such a high caliber stage to show the range of who I am as an artist. I just love it. And I really love the LEGACY shows!
JP: Speaking of family, you’ve been part of the Studio Tenn Family for a couple season now, having been part of their 2013 THE HANK LEGACY: The Songs of Hank Williams, as well as a spectacular turn in the World Premiere production of the (mostly) non-musical THE BATTLE OF FRANKLIN: A Tale of a House Divided. What’s your favorite aspect of working with the creative talents at Studio Tenn?
CARRIE TILLIS: Favorite aspect of working with Studio Tenn? How much time do you have??? From the beginning, here were two hometown guys–Matt Logan and Jake Speck–who had their footprint fresh from New York and they set that high bar here immediately. Their vision and their follow through…the actors are in such good hands with these guys. Matt and Jake are supreme talents in their own right- in so many ways- and they surround themselves with a team of like mind and capability: light, sound, sets, costumes, stage managers and back of house, supporters, etc…the village it takes!. The end product is always pertinent and thought provoking, magical, inspiring and uplifting….telling good stories with awesome and talented people – what theater should be! Nashville and Franklin are so lucky to have Studio Tenn and I’m so proud to be a part of this group.
JP: I seem to remember watching your Daddy and Johnny Cash in a particularly hilarious skit on THE GLEN CAMPBELL GOODTIME HOUR when, as they say, I was about ‘knee-high to a grasshopper’. Has your Dad ever shared memories of Johnny with you, or did you ever have occasion to meet him yourself?
CARRIE TILLIS: YES! Those shows were the best. We have several still shots of the episode with Glen and Johnny playing a sheriff. I’m not exactly sure what Dad was, but that was just one of many of those great variety shows. All those guys loved each other so much. There are so many stories! They were supremely talented and unique. They each had their own swagger and they respected each other for that. They were wickedly funny (and often wicked and wild- no doubt), but they also had reverence and respect that only that generation can have in a certain way. They all knew exactly where they came from and that was as much of their persona for sure. I remember meeting both Waylon and Johnny – at different times – but I remember how genteel and sweet they both were. And Johnny backstage at the Opry was physically so big and tall…imposing!…but he led with such a warmth and sweet smile. Hate to bust that wild persona…but that’s what I remember.
JP: From what I understand, you and Laura Matula, another Studio Tenn favorite, are the only two cast members returning from 2015’s premiere production of THE CASH LEGACY. Do you have a favorite moment, yours or someone else’s during the current production of THE CASH LEGACY?
CARRIE TILLIS: Yes, Laura Matula and I are the only returning cast members from the original production. The rest of the cast is new and the band is the same except for 1new addition. So the show will have a new flavor for sure, even though we have a lot of the favorite songs that we just can’t do without. The question is do I have a favorite moment? Wow….The reason we do these legacy shows is because a true legacy has been left, a body of work that spans a lifetime and inspired many generations. The Johnny Cash songs and sound are a part of our culture! So at one minute in the show I’m reveling in the drive of “Folsom Prison”, then elevated in the poetry of a song like “Flesh and Blood”, then completely caught up in the story of “Give My Love to Rose”, or geeked out because Jake Bradley just played Luther’s part exactly right on the guitar….I just can’t pick one!!! The whole show, I get caught up in and relish! And the moments where I get to add my take? What a gift. I’m so thankful. It’s just a remarkable show to be a part of and share with an audience….and they get it, too.
Rapid Fire with Ashley Cleveland of Studio Tenn’s THE CASH LEGACY
JP: It’s my understanding that THE CASH LEGACY will mark your Studio Tenn debut, correct?
ASHLEY CLEVELAND: Yep it’s my first time with Studio Tenn.
JP: One of my Top Five (yes, as lifelong fan of the Man in Black, I have actually thought of this) Johnny Cash albums is his 1959 first-ever gospel release, “Hymns by Johnny Cash”. The majority of Cash fans might not realize, of his 96 studio releases, there were 10 gospel albums–11 if you count the posthumously-released “My Mother’s Hymn Book”. As a gospel and contemporary christian artist, do you have a favorite of Cash’s sacred tunes?
ASHLEY CLEVELAND: I love “I Am A Pilgrim” I’m intrigued with some of the hymns he chose—they really identify a time and place in Southern Baptist history and were staples of Appalachian country churches.
JP: Cash was often thought of as going against the norm in his genre. As the first-ever female to be nominated for a Grammy in the Best Rock Gospel category, and the only artist ever to win three times in the category, I’d imagine going against the norm is something you face from time to time. Do you feel any other similarities to Cash that others might not think of?
ASHLEY CLEVELAND: I think Cash’s status as an outlaw had a lot to do with what he wrote about along with his transparency as a person. I definitely relate to that—I feel like a maverick in that I go everywhere and belong nowhere. I am considered a Christian artist but am not part of that industry and I participate often in the mainstream but am not part of that industry either. Oddly, in both instances, my lyrics have a lot do with my outsider status and my transparency artistically and personally has probably contributed as well. So, though Johnny Cash was really a mainstay of country music and I am more persona non grata genre-wise, I connect in that way. Also—we both have been public about our alcoholism and drug addiction and though that is a club that no one aspires to, I have found my people in the rooms of recovery and I have a distinct memory of sitting in one of those rooms across from the Man In Black shortly after I moved to Nashville and thinking ‘maybe being a hapless drunk is not so bad…’
JP: Within the context of THE CASH LEGACY production, what do you think Cash fans will be most pleased to witness?
ASHLEY CLEVELAND: I think that the arrangements of the songs really showcase the power of the lyrics. I think of Nashville as, first and foremost, a songwriters town and I am knocked out all over again over Cash’s extraordinary gift.
RAPID FIRE with Mike Farris of Studio Tenn’s THE CASH LEGACY
JP: How familiar were you with Studio Tenn and their LEGACY series prior to joining this amazing cast of creatives for THE CASH LEGACY?
MIKE FARRIS: I’m totally new to what Studio Tenn has been doing. I’m a homebody when I’m home, so I’m always the last to the party these days! However, our son, Christian, was totally hip and let me know that it was imperative that I be a part of the Legacy series, of which I’m thankful he insisted!
JP: When did you first discover the music of Johnny Cash?
MIKE FARRIS: My earliest memories of music include the man.
JP: Knowing a little about your background, I suspect you can relate to Cash on a level that transcends music. Is that a fair statement?
MIKE FARRIS: Absolutely. In the late 90’s/early 2000’s when I was deep in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction, his life itself became an even bigger influence on me. I found such an elegant, tender beauty in the story of this rough-edged rock star who was daring to be vulnerable and place his brokenness on display. His sharing of his struggles really inspired me to try and get sober. I didn’t feel so alone in the fight.
JP: When I heard you were part of Studio Tenn’s THE CASH LEGACY, I gotta tell you I was stoked, haven seen you perform “Folsom Prison Blues” at a NECAT benefit, as well as “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” at a Music City Roots show a few years back. I consider the latter the ultimate Johnny Cash and the Carter Family faith-based song. If you could only perform one Cash song, what would it be and why?
MIKE FARRIS: Wow, there are really just too many to choose from- “Flesh & Blood”, “Folsom Prison, “Give My Love To Rose” and on and on. There are so many songs from the American Recordings sessions that he absolutely turned into his own. So many of those that I would love to sing as well.
Rapid Fire with Don Chaffer, Arranger/Music Director of Studio Tenn’s THE CASH LEGACY
JP: You’re returning to THE CASH LEGACY after having served as Arranger/Music Director when Studio Tenn first mounted it a few season ago. Any chance you can share an aspect of the show that’s new and different from the original production?
DON CHAFFER: Well, while we loved the show the first time around, Matt and I felt like there were a few things from our end, as the show’s co-creators–things like flow, sequence, song selection, etc.–that we wanted to improve. And you know how these things go… you get started and pretty soon one change requires another, and… we wound up with: eight singers instead of six, a few less songs overall, eight new songs, nine older songs that have been musically re-arranged, and Matt has re-designed all the costumes and set. Finally, because of some scheduling issues, we wound up with an almost entirely different cast of singers, and even some band members. So, while we didn’t set out to totally re-work it, we did, and I feel like it’s an “entirely different show,” one that I feel much happier with. Oh, and it’ll be at the Ryman.
JP: As Music Director and Arranger for THE CASH LEGACY, as well as providing vocals and guitar, you’ve got the unique role of being behind-the-scenes as well as on-stage. What goes into arranging familiar Cash tunes to suite the vibe of this production?
DON CHAFFER: Well, there are three primary concerns in hammering out a good LEGACY arrangement:
1) Serve the singer. Choose the right songs for the right singer. Then tailor-make the arrangement for each person to reveal something deeper about both the song and the singer.
2) Find the musical core of the song. Whether it’s a rhythm, a melody, or a chord change, I try to emphasize that musical quality that makes a given song magical.
3) Serve the lyric. I love it when an audience says they’d never noticed a lyric before. These songs are bursting with stories, characters, and poetry. However, they’re often overlooked because they’re so familiar, so, I try to find ways to makes the lyric feel both resonant and brand new.
JP: When I spoke with Carrie, I noted that she’s one of the only performers in this current production who was part of the 2015 debut of the piece, so obviously you two worked together then. Have you had the opportunity to collaborate with any of the other artists involved in this production previously?
DON CHAFFER: Laura Matula was also in the previous CASH LEGACY. Mike Farris and I have written (songs) together a couple of times over the years. I music directed John Mark McGaha in Studio Tenn’s production of BIG RIVER a few seasons back. I’ve met Ashley Cleveland on a few occasions, but never worked together musically before. Miles Aubrey, Steve Benoit, and Mandy Barnett are new to me. All of them are fantastic both as musicians/singers, and as people. The pleasure is truly, no-joke, mine. *(Matula, McGaha, Aubrey and Benoit make up the rest of the CASH LEGACY on-stage performers)
JP: Where the tunes included in THE CASH LEGACY are concerned, is there one arrangement in particular of which you’re most proud?
DON CHAFFER: Hmmm. I’m personally proudest of “Give My Love to Rose.” The lyric is a heartbreaker, and the combo of: an achier chord progression and instrumentation, as well as the way the re-harmonizing follows the lyric, and finally, Laura Matula kills it, it’s consistently moving for me, and the acoustic guitar part is fun to play. That said, my favorite is “Flesh and Blood,” which my wife arranged. I said, “Do it in 6/8, use the minor chords here and here. You get a piano and three women singers. Good luck.” When I got home from rehearsal, there it was! And it’s breathtaking to hear every time.
With that, my chat with Chaffer and members of the performing cast of Studio Tenn’s THE CASH LEGACY came to a close. Considering the incredible talent assembled for this production, the aforestated revered Ryman locale and the fact that more than a couple of my interview subjects made mention of the company’s fresh take on Cash’s telling, but sometimes-forgotten Number 1 1970 hit, “Flesh and Blood”, there’s no doubt that THE CASH LEGACY is not to be missed.
Studio Tenn’s THE CASH LEGACY takes to the stage of Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium at 8 p.m. on both Friday, March 31 & Saturday, April 1. Tickets for this event range in price from $27.50-$85 and are being sold through the Ryman Auditorium. Click Here to check availability and purchase tickets, or call the Ryman Box Office directly at 615.889.3060.
To keep up with the latest from Studio Tenn, find them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for info about the remainder of their 2016/2017 season.. If you’ve enjoyed the latest installment of my recurring interview feature, Rapid Fire 20 Q, Click Here to check out previous conversations and be sure to subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler.