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The Tennessee Three resurrect Johnny Cash's spirit in Madison
Bob Wootton rolls an otherworldly freight train from the Duck Pond to the Essen Haus
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The Tennessee Three started out their double gig night at the Duck Pond, before moving on to the Essen Haus for a late night performance. View photos in the gallery.
Credit:Jessica Steinhoff

Legends are rarely built without the help of some clever friends and a convincing storyteller. In the case of Johnny Cash, at least a few of these partners in crime belonged to The Tennessee Three, his backing band of more than 40 years.

Friday night at the Madison Mallards baseball game and later at the Essen Haus, the current lineup of the band -- Bob Wootton on vocals and guitar, Shawn Supra on upright bass and Rodney Powell on drums, minus Wootton's wife and daughters, who were out sick -- gave fans a glimpse into how such legends are made.

Though Cash passed away in 2003, his persona lives on through Wootton, who joined the band in 1968 after the original guitarist, Luther Perkins, died in a fire. Wootton had gone to see Cash perform shortly after the tragedy and knocked the star's socks off with his nearly flawless renditions of the group's tunes.

In no time at all, the two men would became inseparable, to the extent that some still wonder if they were separated at birth. According to the Three's manager, Logan Bosemer, Wootton was like Cash's right arm, acting as his stunt double in several movies and serving as the band's anchor when Cash forgot his lyrics, as he often did.

It's no surprise, then, that many folks in the Essen Haus crowd thought Wootton was Cash himself, speculating that the star's death was a hoax.

Wootton swears he's not Johnny resurrected but is pretty certain that The Man in Black's spirit visits the Three's live shows.

"People think I'm nuts, but I swear I see him on the stage every night. I see him standing three feet away from me, then I look the other way and see him jump off the stage," he says. "I couldn't make this up."

Then again, it may just be the otherworldly bond that joins their lives.

"Me and Johnny bonded from day one, and we're similar in a lot of ways. We were both born in Arkansas, we're both American Indian, we've got similar religious backgrounds, we're both Pisces, you name it, he says. "Our lives were parallel except that he's 10 years older."

This is not the kind of thing that just dissolves when someone dies, but it is the kind of thing that makes for an unforgettable live performance. It's as if Wootton is channeling his dear, departed friend every time he steps onto a stage.

What's more, the two men also share a certain brand of baritone voice that's pretty unmistakable. In fact, Wootton says he first discovered Cash when his mother heard one of Cash's songs on the radio and called him into the room, saying, "Listen to this! He sounds just like you."

The other trick is that Wootton so faithfully reproduces the sound of Cash's band from the 1950s, then known as The Tennessee Two. Though Perkins invented this "freight train" rhythm the band's known for, Wootton's the one who made it signify Cash, using the style from the time he entered the band until Cash retired in 1997. The freight train returned again when the Three began playing sans Johnny two years ago.

By the time the train rolled into the Duck Pond stadium yesterday evening, happy hour had already begun and the crowd was itching for some music to set the mood for drinking, screaming and rabble rousing. The Three must have picked up on this vibe, kicking off the show with "Folsom Prison Blues." Thanks to the chain-link fence in front of their stage behind home plate, the band looked as if they were performing from Folsom Prison itself.

After that, things got a bit more introspective but no less intriguing. Sharing anecdotes from Cash's early visits to Sun Studios and the band's trip to the premiere of the 2005 film Walk the Line, it was clear that even if Wootton and Cash were separate people, Cash was Wootton's life -- and still is to this day.

"Most of Johnny Cash's songs were true stories," he told the Mallards crowd before launching into "Big River." Afterwards he added, "Some were not quite so true and some were not true at all."

The audience didn't seem to care if they were fact or fiction as the Three brought to life a poignant "Sunday Morning Coming Down," a hoedown-worthy "Orange Blossom Special" and a version of "Cry, Cry, Cry" straight out of 1955, when singing about weed smoking and sugar daddies was completely taboo.

Around 11 p.m., the group filled the Essen Haus with two-steppers and revelers who sang along to nearly every song, even when Wootton "forgot" a couple of the words. Though the set was similar to the early show's, the late-night crowd received a few bonuses, such as "Jackson" and "Ring of Fire," which erupted into an all-out dance party.

After starting the night with Folsom Prison, it was only fitting to end with another jailhouse rocker: "A Boy Named Sue," the big hit from his 1969 live album, At San Quentin. No lyrics were lost on this one, just tweaked to razz the audience: "If I ever have a boy, I'm going to name him Wisconsin."

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