March 15, 2006

He Walks The Line: Johnny Cash Impersonator Recreates The Magic

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." The Man in Black takes the stage, his voice a seductive siren to scores of screaming fans. He runs through his world-famous repertoire for the packed audience who've come to hear him sing his string of hits, including "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk the Line," and "Ring of Fire."

Close your eyes for a second and it's easy to slip into the magic, to believe the world did not lose Johnny Cash in 2003.

The young man on stage singing his heart out is not Johnny Cash, however — he is Rob Ryan. He's a lookalike impersonator hired by That's Entertainment Casting, Inc, a Centereach, New York-based company, to capture the essence of Johnny Cash.

Ryan will be performing tomorrow at the Southampton Publick House at a cocktail party to benefit Dominican Sisters Family Health Services, a not-for-profit home health agency.

Like so many performers, Ryan started out by singing in church and playing guitar when he was young. Although he was born in New Jersey and lives in Manhattan, Ryan's heart hankers for honky-tonk music.

Impersonation has always come naturally. "I started mimicking my friends in a polite, respectful way," said Ryan. During his shows, Ryan impersonates performers such as Louis Armstrong and Hank Williams. So believable is Ryan as Williams that last year, he worked as an understudy for Lost Highway, the Broadway production based on Williams's life.

Living in Nashville for four years helped imbue his stage performances with realism. "I worked like a dog," said Ryan. "I sang for 12 hours a day."

In Nashville, Ryan followed in the footsteps of country giants, playing for tips at legendary establishments such as Robert's Western World and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. "It was a do-or-die situation," said Ryan. "If you didn't do the job and entertain the people, they went next door."

It was also the training ground of stars, and the walls echoed with the sounds of music luminaries such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, who first appeared on the same honky-tonk stages, just steps away from the Grand Ole Opry, where Patsy Kline and Hank Williams laid claim to immortality. A star-studded litany of country luminaries used to stop by the celebrated strip of bars.

"They'd come in and drink between sets," said Ryan. "It was a prestigious place for a singer doing country because so many people got their start there."

Cash has long played an integral part in Ryan's career. In 1998, he worked on an all-star tribute to Cash produced by the Turner Network Television. "I received a compliment from Johnny Cash," said Ryan. "He told his manager, who said it to the producer of the Turner Network. The producer told me, 'Johnny Cash said that you do a very authentic job.' That was better than any pay I received."

Ryan said that he has no one favorite Johnny Cash song. "They all have a particular place in my heart," he said. Fans, though, clamor for "Folsom Prison Blues."

Inspired by country great Hank Williams, Ray Charles, and, of course, Cash, Ryan said although he enjoys impersonation, "first and foremost, I promote myself as a singer and songwriter." Ryan is working on a new CD, expected to be released this fall.

The film, he said, has given the country genre of music a boost. "The movie has done things for country music, especially around the Northeast."

Ryan will perform at the Publick House with banjo player Hilary Hawk, who recreates the music of June Carter Cash and the Carter family with her band, The Mayvelles. "We're going to rock it out in a country way," said Ryan.

Tickets to the event cost $27, and all proceeds will benefit the Dominican Sisters and their Interfaith Volunteer Helping Hands program, which helps patients with transport, light housekeeping, and other services. For more information, contact Marianne Bogannam at 728-0937.

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