Longtime residents of the Greater Green can tell you of times when Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash were spotted among the shops and stalls of Red Bank’s Antiques District, just two American music legends indulging their shared passion for collectibles on one of their many visits to the area.
Down in Asbury Park, where the Man in Black was one of a group of investors in the venerable Berkeley-Carteret Hotel back in the 1980s, a “Johnny Cash Suite” still designates the specially reserved local quarters of the Arkansas-born icon who kept a place in his heart for the Jersey Shore (and who made some of the most memorable contributions to the body of Bruce Springsteen covers).
June and Johnny both moved on down that line in 2003, but Monmouth County Cash aficionados have been graced in the new millennium with the presence of a band that’s been acclaimed — by Cash/Carter cohorts and family members, no less — as one of the country’s premier tribute acts. And on May 7, Michael Patrick’s Ring of Fire Band makes a Saturday night stand on the stage of the Middletown Arts Center.
A singer-songwriter in his own right, Patrick has issued several indie albums, both solo and with his regular combo the Suburban Hillbillies. An impresario of sorts who’s brought such intriguingly alt-Americana acts as Justin Townes Earle and Pokey LaFarge to local barrooms and bowling alleys, he also gigs up and down the eastern seaboard, and keeps his hand in coastal venues that Waretown’s country-cathedral Albert Music Hall and Little Silver’s Embury United Methodist Church, the jam-session home of the Bluegrass & Oldtime Music Association of New Jersey, as well as at the annual Clearwater folkfest, Keyport coffeehouses and Asbury rock bars.
“Since we’re a little light on country bars around here, it kind of forces me to be creative,” the country music catalyst told us in an interview a few years back. “But I’d rather be one of 10 HERE, than one of a million in Nashville.”
The bandleader — whose self-penned tune “Cash in the Attic” conveyed the thrill of discovery that comes with tuning in to the Man in the Black’s music for the first time — has also stayed highly visible and audible as frontman of the Ring of Fire Band, an act that’s expanded its territory by popular demand — from selling out BB King’s in New York City,to playing for thousands of people at the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival in Starkville, Mississippi (in case you’re not up on your Cash lore, that’s the town where Johnny famously spent the night in jail for picking flowers in the wee hours of the morning).
Along the way, the boys in the band have shared the bill with Johnny’s daughter Rosanne Cash, and met Johnny’s sister Joanne, as well as his daughter Kathy.
“To have Johnny Cash’s daughter come up to us after we played and say to us, ‘I heard Dad’ — what more could I ask for?” says Patrick.
The accolades are all the more impressive when you consider that Patrick — like Pat Guadagno in his annual Bob Dylan tribute concerts — makes no special effort to ape the sartorial style and “Daddy Sang Bass” singspeak drawl of the frankly inimitable Cash — insisting that “the Ring of Fire Band is a tribute, not an impersonation. We cover all of his career to some extent, from the Sun Records days (“Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line”) to the last records he did with Rick Rubin, like ‘Delia’ and ‘Hurt’.”
When the core band takes to the stage of the MAC on Church Street, they’ll be joined for the occasion by guest Mary Lamont, the vocalist who’s performed June Carter’s parts in duets like “Jackson.” Tickets for the 7 p.m. concert ($20) can be reserved right here.