PICTURED: The Mighty Cash Cats are regulars at The Canyon in Agoura Hills. Photo submitted
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
The life and music of Johnny Cash loom large in American culture. The son of Arkansas cotton farmers, he rose from his impoverished beginnings to find fame and fortune on the airwaves and in the concert halls of the 1950s and continued to be a figure of admiration and influence until his death in 2003. His songs of love and loss, trials and tribulations, fall from grace and eventual redemption were mirrored in his own life. Despite struggles with addiction, adultery and brushes with the law, he wrote a string of hits that have become classics, renewed his faith in God, and became known for his social activism and numerous collaborations with everyone from Elvis Presley to U2. Cash would be inducted into the Halls of Fame for three separate music genres (country, rock and roll and gospel) and today remains one of the best-selling artists of all time.
Cash left big footprints in Ventura County as well. From 1957 to 1968, he lived in the city of Ventura and, later, Casitas Springs, recording one of his biggest hits, “Ring of Fire,” during that time. His daughters attended St. Bonaventure High School. He had an office in downtown Ventura, at 437 East Main Street — the current site of Carlson Jewelers.
It is Cash’s legacy as a musician and Ventura County resident (at least for a time) that Michael Jay has sought to honor and perpetuate as the founder of tribute band Mighty Cash Cats.
At first blush, Jay — a native of New York who once taught high school — appears to be an unlikely torch bearer for one of America’s most influential country artists. And yet the fact that the music of Johnny Cash could inspire Jay’s own career is proof of the Man in Black’s wide reach and broad appeal.
“I wanted to get it accurate”
Jay came out to California in the early 1990s, following in the footsteps of the family.
“I had a brother out here, and I was kind of sick of New York,” he acknowledges. “So I came out to visit and kind of just stayed.”
He performed with a few different local bands, finding modest success with an outfit called the River Rangers. He took a bit of a break from music for four years to care for his aging mother. When he was ready to get back in the game, he knew he “didn’t want to do the 9 pm-1 am bar band thing.”
This was the early-aughts, which according to Jay were experiencing a wave of tribute bands.
“We always got a good response to our Cash covers,” Jay recalls, which inspired him to start the Mighty Cash Cats.
His first step was educating himself with Cash’s body of work, from his early rockabilly days to his latter-day covers and collaborations.
“I spent six months learning the material,” Jay explains, listening to Cash’s music and studying concert videos and original recordings. “I wanted to get it accurate; all original keys.”
His deep dive yielded some surprising discoveries.
“His music is a little strange,” Jay notes. “Sometimes he clips beats and measures or sings behind the beat. ‘Ring of Fire’ he did with a two-measure rest.”
With this knowledge and a vision for a tribute band that would play Cash’s music the way the man himself played it, Jay put a band together, spent two months practicing and debuted the Mighty Cash Cats in January 2007, at Pirates Grub ‘n’ Grog in Oxnard. They were an instant hit, and it wasn’t long before the Cats were booked for a tour.
Blooming with Blumette
As the Mighty Cash Cats became more popular, Jay (who sings lead vocals and plays guitar) started looking for another ingredient to add to his heady mix: someone who could embody the talented singer/songwriter (and great love of Cash’s life) June Carter . He put out an ad in craigslist, and a raven-haired Leticia Blumette showed up to audition.
“As soon as she sang one verse of ‘Jackson,’ I knew she was the one,” Jay says.
With Blumette and guitarist/keyboardist Oliver Thin on board, the Cats had plenty of talent in their corner. The one thing still needed, however, was a bass player . . . and Blumette was happy to oblige.
“She learned to play bass as a band member,” Jay says, “and she’s been the bass player ever since.”
In 2016, current drummer Tim MacDonald joined the band. A few years later, the versatile Blumette took on yet another role: the Linda Ronstadt Experience, which would later be renamed Silver Threads.
Jay notes that it’s a natural fit for a Johnny Cash tribute band. “Johnny got Linda’s career off the ground”. And when June was on maternity leave, Linda stepped in to tour with Cash.”
Silver Threads frequently opens for the Cats — a convenient situation for any touring act — and Jay explains that “The Linda Ronstadt act has put new energy into the band.”
The Cats’ faithful recreation of Cash’s music has earned them a following far beyond Ventura County. The Paso Robles-to-Palm Springs circuit keeps them on the road in California, but they have fans throughout the US — and further afield.
“We’ve been to Europe seven times,” Jay says. “I’m like a rockstar in Ireland.” He adds that performing at the “Music in the Mountains” festival in Cork helped make a name for the band across the pond, and the rest of Europe followed.
The Cats have also played for audiences in the UK, France, Israel and the Philippines. On tour in Japan, Jay asked a woman at one of his shows why she was a fan. She told him that the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line turned a lot of people on to his music.
“Friends and fans show up on Facebook from Argentina, Bulgaria, Poland . . . There seem to be Johnny Cash fans all over the world.”
They’ve got plenty of fans closer to home, too. The Mighty Cash Cats are familiar to almost every bar, music venue and music lover in the area. Jay et al are looking forward to Independence Day Weekend.
“We’re excited to be back here,” Jay says. “We have three local shows in the same weekend. That almost never happens!”
Fans can catch the Mighty Cash Cats’ at Oxnard’s Heritage Square on Friday, July 1, followed by the 14th anniversary show at Ventura Music Hall on Saturday and then during the Downtown Ventura Fourth of July festivities on July 4.
After that, they’re back on the road for shows in Arizona.
Jay has made a career out of recreating the music and presence of the Man in Black, and after all these years, Cash has never stopped being a source of fascination and inspiration for him.
“He seems to have staying power,” Jay says. “His music was so far ahead of the time, it couldn’t be played on the radio. ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ was a comment on the treatment of Native Americans. ‘The Man in Black’ is an anti-war song. He took courageous stands.”
“He was a very intelligent man,” the Cats frontman continues. He wrote his own music, promoted a lot of young musicians, like Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young and and Kris Kristofferson. He had a lot of depth to him . . . He was a patriot without a doubt, but he also believed in social justice. That’s one of the things I love about him.”
Notably, Cash kept the same backing musicians for nearly 25 years. Drummer WS Holland; guitarists Bob Wootton, Luther Perkins and Carl Perkins (no relation); and bassist Marshall Grant were some of the longest-standing members who contributed to the distinctive “Johnny Cash sound.”
“He didn’t really change his sound — he kept the same band for most of his career,” Jay says. “He stayed loyal to the people around him. That’s what I’m trying to portray.”
For him and the other band members, the Might Cash Cats is a full-time gig . . . and their only gig. It’s all Cash, all the time for them . . . and Jay wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I am dedicated to what I do. I am in for the long haul.”
Catch the Mighty Cash Cats at the following dates, times and venues: