WORTHINGTON - It’s not necessarily an approved denomination, but “Church of Cash” might just deliver a religious experience for devotees of the renowned Man in Black.
Local Johnny Cash lovers have an opportunity to worship at the altar of the artist’s greatest hits, and then some, at 7 p.m. Saturday in a performance at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center.
With Minneapolis-based musician Jay Ernest as the voice of Johnny Cash, “Church of Cash” has been playing to full houses across the region - and at numerous European venues besides - over the past 10 years.
“We go to Europe every year,” said Ernest, who initiated “Church of Cash: World-Class Johnny Cash Tribute” a decade ago.
“The Europeans appreciate music in a different way than Americans, but I love the differences because that keeps it fresh and interesting.
“We regularly sell out 300- to 500-seat theaters in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, and have already sold out a few venues for our tour there in March.”
Other upcoming gigs slightly closer to home are scheduled for Eagan, Little Falls and Menomonie, Wis., among other sites.
Tammy Makram, MAPAC’s managing director, knew from past experience that the music of Johnny Cash is a guaranteed draw in this area.
“I chose this group because Johnny Cash’s songs seems to appeal to all ages in a timeless way, and when we’ve had other acts here featuring his music, whether in Gone Country or professional shows, they’ve been extremely well-received,” said Makram.
“’Church of Cash’ comes highly recommended from several other managing directors of performing arts centers across this region - their audiences have loved them - so it seemed like the perfect fit for us.”
While “Orange Blossom Special,” “Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Get Rhythm” and “Ring of Fire” are virtually guaranteed to be on this weekend’s Church of Cash program lineup, attendees can expect to hear a few other equally resonant but less familiar Cash tunes, too.
“A song he sang with a group of other artists - Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson - is ‘The Highwayman,’ and it’s by far my favorite song to play,” said Ernest.
“Johnny does the final verse of it, and it’s beautiful and poignant,” Ernest continued. “The hardcore Cash audience knows it, and the casual listener may have heard it on the radio once or twice in the ‘80s.”
Cash’s music isn’t all that’s a neat fit for a southwest Minnesota crowd on a January Saturday night; Ernest himself is right at home in the area, having grown up on a farm about eight miles north of New Ulm.
“I had farm responsibilities like all the other kids,” said Ernest. “I picked rock, fed horses and chickens, pulled weeds and worked on farm machinery.”
But Ernest has also been singing since he was five years old. He learned the guitar at 13 and has been a touring musician since 20.
“I’ve done a variety of music,” said Ernest. “I went to college to sing opera, and I’ve played in punk rock and reggae bands, so I’m well versed in a lot of different styles.
“When this Johnny Cash thing happened, it was the culmination of all my years of experience, like coming home to the music my father had been singing to me since I was a 1-year-old.”
Ernest has been a working musician for nearly 25 years, though earlier in his career he was more of a backup guy, as he explains it.
“I wanted more exposure as a front man and lead singer, so I started playing more tunes to expand my repertoire,” he related.
“Every time I sang Johnny Cash, people put down their beers and stared at me, so I went home to learn more of his music and quickly realized I knew all his songs already because my old man had sung them to me since I was a child.
“Maybe I was born to do this, but I didn’t know it was happening until it was right there in front of me.”
Ernest employs a full complement of skilled musicians to round out the “Church of Cash” sound, including Albert “The Bronco” Perez on guitar, Eric Struve on bass guitar and upright bass, and drummer Jonathan TeBeest.
“I’m very happy to be performing at Memorial Auditorium,” assured Ernest. “It’s historic, and a place I’ve wanted to play for years.”
Even after a decade of sharing the music and message of Johnny Cash, Ernest remains energized by the chance to keep Cash’s spirit and compositions alive.
“Johnny Cash’s music is relatable to everyone,” asserted Ernest. “That’s the key to why he’s so huge and has such a lasting impact.
“It doesn’t matter what your status is in life, because he addresses things everyone experiences.
“Johnny Cash speaks to the soul.”
“Church of Cash: Tribute to Johnny Cash” takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center, 714 13th St., Worthington. All seats are reserved, and there is a discount for advance purchase. For tickets, visit the box office from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays, call 376-9101 or visit friendsoftheauditorium.com. Doors open one hour prior to show time. Kalea Appel will provide pre-show and intermission lobby entertainment; concessions and Round Lake Winery products will be sold.