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Walking the line

He dresses up like Johnny, just to watch them cheer

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"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash."

It's Friday night at a legion hall in East St. Paul. A mix of couples, retirees and holdovers from the afternoon meat draw are here for the A. R. Cash Show -- a Johnny Cash tribute act fronted by Aaron Prociuk.

At 9 p.m., Prociuk walks to the front of the room sporting a red dress shirt and white suit jacket. (Because this evening's show will be presented in chronological order as per Cash's storied career, the "man in black" motif won't come into play until the second set, we're told beforehand.)

Prociuk nods to his four-piece band, steps up to the mic and with a hearty "I hear the train a comin..." launches into Folsom Prison Blues. For the next two hours, the audience hoots, hollers and two-steps along to the songbook of John R. Cash -- the only person besides Elvis Presley to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

Prociuk -- a natural baritone -- doesn't just sound the part. At 21, he is roughly the same age his idol was when he moved to Memphis, Tenn., in hopes of landing a recording contract with Sun Records.

Even better: Prociuk, who played harmonica and guitar for another Cash tribute act before striking out on his own 12 months ago, spends a good chunk of time in front of the mirror every morning, styling his hair into a full-on pompadour.

"I get a few people at school asking me what's up with my do," says the University of Winnipeg education student. "When I tell them I'm a Johnny Cash impersonator they're usually like, 'Oh, really?'"

It's been a full decade since Cash died in 2003 at the age of 71. But the 13-time Grammy Award-winner remains as popular as ever. Maybe more so. This year, two new Cash albums hit the charts -- one, a rarities package called LIFE Unheard; the other, a set of duets he recorded with his old chum, Willie Nelson called Every Song Tells a Story.

Also, an exhibit of photographs entitled Johnny Cash: We Are All Men in Black was a huge draw this summer, when it toured through art galleries in Italy.

Thirdly, on April 30, two months after the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in Cash's honour, the long-awaited Johnny Cash Museum opened in Nashville. Displays range from depictions of his boyhood home in Arkansas, his career outside of music -- who can forget Cash's starring turn on the detective series Colombo? -- and his 35-year marriage to June Carter. Last month, National Geographic magazine ranked the Johnny Cash Museum tops in a run-down of the best museums in the world that showcase a particular artist or group. (The ABBA Museum in Stockholm had to settle for second place.)

Stu Reid is the host of Twang Trust, a radio program on CKUW devoted to "country, roots and big, dumb rock 'n' roll." Cash is a patron saint of Reid's show; nary a week goes by when his presence isn't felt in some way, shape or form, Reid says.

"I might not play (Cash) but I'll play a cover -- or I'll play someone who's been heavily influenced by him. I love that he's become an icon to anyone who loves music -- be it country, punk or whatever."

One of Reid's greatest regrets in life is not seeing Cash perform live. Not that the opportunity didn't present itself.

"I used to work for a screen-printing shop that got the gig to print hats and shirts for a late '80s Canadian tour," Reid says. "Everyone was offered free tickets to the show at the Playhouse Theatre. Even though I was starting to get into country music at the time, I thought of Cash as kind of washed up, so I didn't go. The next day our sales guy came in raving about the concert -- and how cool it was to go backstage and meet Johnny."

Reid has a bone to pick with anybody who says they dislike country music but love Johnny Cash.

"I dearly want to kick them in the (rear). If you have a T-shirt with a picture of Johnny Cash flipping the bird -- but you don't own records by Merle Haggard and George Jones -- then you clearly have no idea why Johnny Cash was great."

Apparel bearing the famous image Reid refers to are perennial top-sellers at Wild Planet, a clothing and music emporium located at 237 Osborne St.

At any one time, owner Roman Panchynshyn has over 40 different Cash T-shirts, hoodies and tuques in stock. (No, they don't just come in black.)

"Johnny Cash is still super-popular; it's almost like he's become an industry unto himself," Panchynshyn says, noting people who come in looking for Cash paraphernalia range in age from 10 to 80. "He crossed so many genres. Take for instance when he came out with his American Recordings series in the '90s, and began covering bands like Nine Inch Nails. Suddenly, he opened himself up to an even wider audience."

Back at the legion, Prociuk is ripping through A Boy Named Sue, the only Cash tune to reach No. 1 on the pop charts.

Prociuk and his band have close to 50 songs in their repertoire -- classics like Hey Porter to gospel-tinged tunes like I Was There When it Happened. That's impressive, considering the lead singer knew little to nothing of Cash until he saw Walk the Line, the bio-flick starring Joaquin Phoenix, about five years ago.

"A lot of times people come up to me after the show or between sets and say I look too young to be singing this kind of stuff," says Prociuk. "But to be completely honest I don't care for the music they play on the radio today. I'd much rather be singing the old stuff."

For now, the A.R. Cash Show is a part-time gig for the future grade school teacher. But even when Prociuk lands a job in a classroom somewhere down the road, he doesn't foresee a day when he'll hang up his six-string. Or park his gel.

"The kids might ask about my hair but no, I imagine I'll still be out there whenever I can, singing Ring of Fire."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 2, 2013 D13


Updated on Saturday, November 2, 2013 at 11:35 AM CDT: lede fixed, light editing

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