For nearly 10 years, Rusty Evans has fed his musical muse by performing a popular and insightful tribute to country legend Johnny Cash, but given Evans' long background in the music business, his own story is just as compelling as that of "The Man in Black."
In a career that has spanned six decades, Evans - born Marcus Uzilevsky - was part of the original American rockabilly scene, wrote and recorded out of New York's famous Brill Building (which spawned the careers of Carol King, Neil Diamond and many others), performed with Bob Dylan and other folkie legends in Greenwich Village and spent time in California as an architect of the psychedelic rock movement.
"I've been around and I've done a lot of stuff," chuckled Evans during an interview from his home north of San Francisco.
But these days, Evans prefers to devote his energies to his Cash tribute, which features some 30 tunes and a handful of stories to go along with it.
"I was wanting to get back into the music world in the early 1990s, and Bob Dylan told me a long time ago that I sounded like Johnny Cash and should sing country," said Evans, whose tribute show will be hosted by the Arts Association in Newton County on Saturday, Jan. 24 at Porter Hall. "I love country music and I love Johnny Cash's music, so I kind of picked up on that. And through the years we've built up a reputation where we're carrying the torch and carrying on Johnny's legacy."
Evans said his Cash tribute is just that, and not an imitation.
"I don't consider myself an impersonator," he said. "I guess people can spin it any way they want, but what I'm doing is a tribute to Johnny Cash - I'm not trying to be him. I feel better about that."
A 1998 inductee to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Evans said his favorite Cash era is the early years, when the Arkansas-born singer-songwriter rubbed out the line between rockabilly and country.
"The beginning of his career - from 1955 to the early 60s - is my favorite part," he said. "We really like to play that 50s sound, with the boom-chicka-boom rhythm like (Cash guitarist) Luther Perkins used to play, and that train rhythm on the drums. We lean on that style and apply it whenever we can."
Although he plays down his impressive musical history, Evans has plenty of stories about his early days.
"It's amazing," said Evans, who has also dabbled in roots rock and world music. "It's like another life. I was very young in those Brill Building days so I probably didn't seize the moment like I should have. But the Greenwich odyssey was thrilling because I was seasoned and had a better idea of what I was doing. That was a true Renaissance period in American music and I have very fond memories of that time."
Evans also joked that while Dylan's advice from more than 40 years before was "prophetic," he didn't decide to cover Cash based on it.
"Although what (Dylan) said was prophetic, I didn't take his advice then and I'm not taking it now," he quipped. "He wasn't the inspiration for this - I only remembered he'd mentioned that to me after we started doing these (Cash tribute) shows."
Evans' son Danny Uzilevsky serves as the lead guitarist in their band Ring of Fire and gets plenty of opportunities to display his six-string gifts.
"My son plays lead guitar - he's been with me forever," said Evans. "We're like hand-in-glove. When he was little and just learning guitar, we'd sing Buddy Holly songs together. He's come to love the blues and country music and he's an excellent player. We're a great team. He takes some amazing solos and I feature him whenever I can. He's much more than an added attraction."
Besides Cash's early hits, the tribute concert covers much of the black-clad icon's career, including his latest work, which was produced by Rick Rubin, who has established a legendary livelihood of his own, working with Dylan, the Beastie Boys, Mick Jagger, Tom Petty, the Dixie Chicks and U2.
When it comes to Cash's music, Evans is as much a scholar as he is a performer.
"I think one of Johnny's only hits in the 1970s was 'One Piece at a Time' and he did an interesting version of 'No Expectations,' which was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richard," said Evans. "So we do a few songs from the 70s and 80s, and we've got quite a few Rick Rubin songs to pull from, including 'Hurt,' 'Delia's Gone,' 'Sea of Heartbreak' and 'Country Boy,' which was something Johnny did early in his career and then re-recorded with Rubin as more of a rockabilly tune."
Evans said his usual concert consists of two 50-minute sets and a little spoken exposition about Cash's remarkable career and influence.
"It's a lot of information for people to go away with," he said. "And it's a lot of great music."
Chris Starrs is a freelance writer based in Athens, Ga. If you have a story idea, contact Karen Rohr, features editor, at email@example.com.
SideBar: If you go
What: "A Tribute to Johnny Cash," featuring Rusty Evans and his band, Ring of Fire; the concert is presented by the Arts Association in Newton County, along with Bank of North Georgia and Laney, Boteler & Killinger CPAs
When: 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 24
Where: Porter Hall on the campus of Newton High School, 140 Ram Drive
Cost: Tickets are $22 for adults, $19 for senior citizens and $10 for students and can be obtained by calling 770786-8188 or by visiting www.newtoncountyarts.org. Ticket cost includes admission into a raffle for a $350 guitar.