Because of his ability to transcend music genre barriers, Johnny Cash is recognized by fans of various musical backgrounds – from country to folk to rock ‘n roll, gospel, and soul. It is within that last genre that Brian Owens was inspired to create his tribute album to the Man In Black – SOUL OF CASH – available today (10/6). The 8-track album features some of Cash’s most iconic songs with Owens’ soulful twist plus an original song collaboration. We caught up with the Missouri native to discuss Cash’s influence on the soul singer and Owens’ passionate attention to detail during the production of this powerful album.
CN: First off, we would like to thank you – Staff Sgt. Brian Owens – for your service with the U.S. Air Force. Some of our readers may remember you as one of the co-lead singers of the AMAZING Air Force Band Sidewinder that went viral on YouTube. But for our followers who may not be familiar with you – can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Growing up in Missouri? How did you get involved with music, at what age? Do you play any instruments, and if so which?
BO: I’m a preacher’s kid, so music was a part of my life from the womb. At an early age I was surrounded by extremely gifted vocalists and was blessed with numerous opportunities to experience the power of music that comes from the soul. I tinkered with the organ and piano as a kid but sports was my passion, so I did not take the formal study of music seriously until high school. I was also blessed to perform music in the service of our country for 13 years, an experience that was transformative.
CN: In addition to the great Johnny Cash – which we will get to in further detail shortly – which other artists have you looked up to during your musical journey?
BO: The most obvious influences are Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield, all of which have had a profound influence on my style, phrasing and overall vocal philosophy. The less obvious would be my father.
CN: Do you pull inspiration from any current artists?
BO: Yes. I love what Gregory Porter is doing! I also listen to a lot of CCM and Lauren Daigle and Tauren Wells who have become household favorites. I’m also excited about Esperanza Spalding’s 7,777 project!
CN: Now onto Mr. Cash himself, whose career has covered all from country to folk to gospel to rock. As a soul singer, how has the music of Johnny Cash – and Johnny Cash the person – influenced and inspired you?
BO: When I saw the movie Walk The Line, it opened a doorway for me with Johnny Cash. I know that movies are notoriously overstated and can skirt the truth at times, but it was seeing the struggle of an artist, father, man of faith — all of that spoke to where I was at the time. Then, once I dug more into the music I was hooked on the writing and delivery.
CN: Do you remember the first time you heard a Johnny Cash song? Which song was it?
BO: The interesting thing is that the first time I remember hearing Johnny Cash, he was singing a Hank Williams song on an episode of Columbo; “I Saw The Light”.
CN: In June you released your version of “Ring of Fire” as a single. Covering any Johnny Cash song – let alone one as iconic as “Ring of Fire” – is very bold, but you kept the basis of the song very traditional to Cash’s, while adding your own soulful twist. Can you walk us through the process of how you were able to respectfully keep the song true to itself while keeping true to your own sound?
BO: The music of Johnny Cash contains a beautiful simplicity that does not need much added to speak to the soul. With that, I approached the music for this record as I would any song from the American popular songbook or sacred catalog. The ingredients are already present and proven. I just changed the groove and sung it up the octave!
CN: You’re releasing your personal tribute album to the Man in Black, SOUL OF CASH. Was this something that you’ve wanted to do for a long time? What sparked your desire to pursue this project?
BO: After hearing Modern Sounds in Country and Western by Ray Charles in my mid 20’s, I knew that I wanted to interpret that music someday. In 2014, I did a Johnny Cash tribute concert and in the process of developing that show, I realized that his music could possibly be the perfect vehicle. For that show, I sang every song in the voice and style of Johnny Cash with the exception of one. When I got to “Walk The Line” the range was too low for my voice given that as he modulates the end up in the basement. So, in order to get around this, I took each of those low parts up the octave and just sang them in my voice as if i were doing a duet with the Man in Black. After the show the comment I got the most was that people enjoyed and wanted to hear more of “my voice”. The rest is history!
CN: How were you received when you started to pitch the idea about?
BO: When people heard that I was doing a Johnny Cash album some were intrigued, a few were excited, but most were confused. I can’t blame them. On the surface the fit does seem like a stretch given my previous body of work. That said, in singing Johny Cash I feel as if I have discovered what my voice truly sounds like, and I owe a lot of that to the simple yet profound genius of the Cash Catalog. When people hear it I think they get it though. I explain it as ‘what if Sam Cooke or Otis Redding recorded a Cash record’?
CN: SOUL OF CASH includes the above mentioned “Ring of Fire” as well as six other well-known Cash songs with your own soulful touch applied to each. But picking a total of seven songs from a catalog like Cash’s could not have been an easy feat – could you talk about how and why you chose these specific songs? Were they personal favorites or topics that you connected with? Were there any that you went into the project knowing that they had to be included? What was the process like to arrange these classic songs to fit your style?
BO: All of the songs on this project are definitely favorites in and of themselves. The biggest factor for me was choosing songs that would allow me to explore the range of his compositions and phases of his career, from “Cry, Cry, Cry” and “Folsom Prison Blues” to “Man in Black.” The process of arranging these songs pushed me creatively. For me, it all came down to being simple and to use aesthetics that would allow for the lyric and melody to be the focal point. Coming from traditional gospel, jazz, soul and blues provided me with a framework to do just that. Simply put, I changed the groove and sang everything up the octave! “Walk The Line” is the song that we probably took the most liberties with and it’s still pretty true the original vibe, I think.
CN: Austin Grimm Smith guests on Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” while Dylan McDonald’s (son of the legendary Michael McDonald) gritty voice compliments yours on“Long Black Veil.” How did these parings come about and why on those specific songs?
BO: I met Austin by divine appointment while he was in St. Louis attending the piano recital for his nephew, who happened to have the same teacher as my son. I soon after discovered that he lived in a house once occupied by Hank Williams and it was a wrap. The SOUL OF CASH album would be recorded at his house and Austin, a very talented singer and songwriter, would be on the record. For all of the collaborations, I sent music ahead of time and let everyone weigh in on which tunes they thought would be a good fit for them. Austin and I agreed that “Sunday Morning” would be perfect for our voices, and he loves the tune. In Dylan’s case, I had toured and recorded a song with his father and through that, I was introduced to him as an artist and he is really talented. He has an honesty about his voice that very much reminds me of singer-songwriters from the late 60’s and early 70’s, so “Long Black Veil” was a perfect fit. We recorded it all at the same time in one room so it has a live feel to it that I love.
CN: The final track “Soul In My Country” is an original song which you collaborated with country artist Rissi Palmer on – both in writing and singing – and the ever talented Robert Randolph lends his pedal steel guitar skills. Could you expand on the thought behind the song, and how Palmer and Randolph became involved?
BO: The song was written in response to folks who would always look puzzled when I would tell them that I was an admirer of not only Johnny Cash, but of the Country and Americana genres. Initially, all I had was the line, “You might think I’m crazy, when I say I love Hank”. I sent that line to Rissi, who had recorded on a few of the other tracks for SOUL OF CASH and she came back with an entire first verse, and from there, we were off to the races. After completing the recording, we knew there was something missing. My management team, as well as Rissi’s, have a relationship with Robert Randolph so we reached out and the missing piece was missing no longer. I love the message of the song and the down home church feel which for so many is foundational musically and otherwise.
SOUL OF CASH Track Listing:
1. Ring Of Fire
2. Folsom Prison
3. Walk The Line
4. Cry, Cry, Cry
5. Sunday Morning Coming Down (Featuring Austin Grimm Smith)
6. Long Black Veil (Featuring Dylan McDonald)
7. Man In Black
8. Soul In My Country (Featuring Rissi Palmer & Robert Randolph)
For more information on Brian Owens, visit his website: www.brianowenssoul.com.
Owens is set to debut SOUL OF CASH before a live audience on Friday, Oct. 13, at The Back Corner in Nashville. Visit thebackcorner.com for more information.