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Celebrating the life of Johnny Cash: Church of Cash coming to First on First

Church of Cash

Church of Cash, billed as a  “World Class Johnny Cash Tribute,” will celebrate the life and music of legendary Johnny Cash during a concert for First on First Dickinson Summer Nights.Their show is Thursday, Aug. 10, in downtown Dickinson with Sawdust as the opening band.

Johnny’s music can be heard through the voice of lead singer Jay Ernest with his natural deep bass-baritone voice.

A lifelong musician, Ernest was inspired to start the tribute band in 2009. He was living in Honolulu at the time, and moved back to Minneapolis in 2010.

“I figured I sounded like Johnny Cash when I was singing and playing in bars  -- every time they heard a Johnny Cash song, they’d put down their beers and stared at me. I knew the songs already -- I’ve been groomed for this since I was a kid.”

Ernest grew up in the Twin Cities, where he’d listen to his dad sing Johnny Cash songs.

“I thought they were my Old Man’s songs as a kid, until I was a teenager and then realized these were Johnny Cash songs.”

Along with Ernest, the band includes Jonathon TeBeest on drums, Albert Perez playing electric guitar and Eric Struve playing upright bass. The band has been touring the Upper Midwest and has toured Europe. Wherever they go, people love Johnny Cash.

“People agree he’s more than a musician -- he’s a storyteller, Ernest said. “People have fond memories listening to Johnny  as kids, maybe their dad or maybe their grandma listened to him. I’ve heard five year olds singing “Ring of Fire.”

Ernest said his the tribute band’s name, Church of Cash is likened to when  folks go to church.

“You’re singing songs and hearing stories -- you’re celebrating Jesus, but it’s the same thing when you’re hearing Johnny.  You’re creating moments of joy that become something like church -- Church of Cash.”

The Church of Cash audiences are a mix of generations.

“Our shows are very family friendly -- there’s nothing gritty about Johnny. We really play the old-school country music,” he said.

Johnny Cash has had many eras of his career,  starting in the late 1950s, said Ernest.

“He blossomed right away and continued into the ’60 and ’ 70s. He appeared on popular TV shows like Little House on the Prairie,” he said. “By the end of the 1980s, his career fell off. That’s when Rick Ruben, a famous producer, talked to Johnny and asked him what songs he’d like to record before he died.”

They re-created the legend of the Man in Black with American Recordings -- Johnny’s 81st album released in 1994. It marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Cash. It fostered a whole new crop of young fans -- soldiers back from Afghanistan and Iraq who played his songs in the tanks and barracks.

“Now their kids listen to the music -- now we’re into the fourth generation. His music keeps going on and on,” Ernest said.

Ernest’s band has a roster of 200 Johnny Cash songs to chose from -- enough songs to play for half a day, but there’s five songs that are audience favorites. They include “Ring of Fire,” Folsom Prison Blues,” a Boy named Sue, “Jackson” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

“I don’t have  a set list -- I like to read the audience to see what they want -- sometimes it’s the ballads, sometimes is the fast stuff,” he said.

The Dickinson show is part of a tour of North Dakota that will include Rugby, Almont and Watford City. This is the band’s first trip through the region.

Ernest has a theory about Cash’s lasting legacy.

“He tells stories from start to finish with his music,” he said.

Ernest referenced the story about the Folsom County Prison, and yet it’s a misconception that Johnny spent any time in jail.

Ernest has started his career as a musician at age 19. Now 42, he’s toured all over the world, playing a variety of instruments and diversity of music. But it’s the Johnny Cash tribute that his been, by far, the most successful for his career.

“I loved his music as a child,” he said. “His music is growing bigger and bigger  and I see the band propelling to bigger stages and doing more national shows, even Vegas.”

Referencing First on First, he added, “I love these town festivals -- they are the most fun things ever. I’ll be retiring singing Johnny Cash.”

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