Bill Forness’ Tribute to Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
When Bill Forness was just 5 years old, he attended his grandparents’ 40th anniversary party where his uncle Larry, a successful singer and songwriter, performed to celebrate his parents’ milestone. Larry, who wrote songs for superstars like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, pulled his nephew up on stage with him as he sang and played the piano.
“That’s my earliest and fondest memory,” Forness says. “I loved being up on that stage. All I wanted to do was play and sing with him, but I didn’t know what to do or how to do it.”
When he was 13, Forness purchased his first guitar, but there was no money for guitar lessons so he found a good guitar player and hung out with him to learn chords, scales and cool tricks. At 21 years old, Forness signed with Paradigm Records, a label in St. Louis. He put out a record and toured a bit. Then came the collapse of the record label and he had to switch gears.
“MTV wasn’t on the table much anymore,” he says.
The good news is that he had a second love – food. After attending culinary school, he worked in various restaurants for nearly a decade, then blended his two loves by performing in area restaurants. While he loved doing that, it was, of course, impossible to cook in the kitchen while simultaneously singing in the dining room. A respected chef that Forness had trained under offered to introduce him to colleagues at a prestigious country club. It was to be his chance to move up the ladder in the culinary world. Forness, however, recognized that both passions require ample energy and he needed to pick one. Ultimately, Forness chose to pursue a career in music.
He began performing weekly, then daily, at the Chase Park Plaza, a well-known hotel in St. Louis, singing a variety of music. One day he threw in a few Johnny Cash songs. Fans responded and asked if he could learn other songs from the Man in Black.
Being an acoustic guitar player and a lover of storytelling, Forness naturally gravitated towards Cash’s music and performance style.
“He’s such a unique storyteller within his songs,” he says. “Think of ‘A Boy Named Sue.’ Then he also just has some fun songs like ‘Ring of Fire’ and ‘Jackson.’”
Interestingly, Forness’ mother was named after Cash’s wife, June Carter.
“She always liked the classic country music I sang and thought I had a voice for it, more so than the rock-and-roll stuff I was trying to sing,” Forness says. “Turns out, she was right.”
Forness had an idea to recreate Cash’s Folsom State Prison concert of 1968, complete with handmade jail cells and hired actors playing the warden and prison guards.
“I envisioned an interactive show and that’s what I developed,” says Forness, who hired someone to play Carl Perkins, four men to play the Statler Brothers, and four women to be the Carter Sisters, a quartet consisting of Maybelle Carter and her daughters June, Helen and Anita. It was a 17-piece production that was just about to start when COVID-19 hit and the world shut down.
Once again, Forness had to change his course. He and his wife Dawn sold their house, moved into their 34’ RV and headed to Florida. For several months he wasn’t able to perform at all, so to make ends meet, he took side jobs like delivering groceries and working for an air conditioning business. Ultimately he found a few venues that allowed him to perform outdoors.
“Initially my wife and I thought we’d be living in the RV for three or four months in the winter and then figure out what to do,” Forness says. “This September we’ll have lived in it for two years. We’re not complaining because this vehicle has taken us all around the country to put on shows.”
Dawn not only takes care of the business side of things, including the accounting and booking shows, but she also maintains the website and even joins him on stage.
“We engage with the audience together,” Forness says.
They’ve been to 22 states in the last two years, staying at RV parks, campgrounds and fairgrounds. When they’re not performing, they’re driving. And when they’re not driving, they’re hooking up to a new campground.
“Our RV has big stickers that say, ‘Bill Forness: A Tribute to Johnny Cash,’ so we’re constantly talking to people and taking pictures outside of the bus,” Forness says.
Since the Folsom Prison show isn’t currently possible, Forness has been performing “Bill Forness: A Tribute to Johnny Cash,” which showcases Cash’s music career and personal life.
“I start with the 1950s and go through the decades of his music, chronicling his life,” says Forness, who also shares with the audience what it’s been like to pay tribute to Cash for the past 13 years. “Johnny has become an enormous part of my life, and we’re nowhere near slowing down.”
Forness performs roughly 200 shows per year, sometimes squeezing in two concerts per day. He says his voice can handle it because it’s like a muscle.
“You want to continue to use it in a healthy way to maintain it,” he says. “You don’t want to strain because that will create tears that will need to heal. Better to use it than lose it. Plus, my voice is in a naturally low register so Johnny’s music comes very natural to me.”
Though Forness does his best to play fan favorites during his two one-hour sets, inevitably audience members will request certain songs. Keep in mind that Cash recorded more than 1,500 songs.
He’s currently on a 12-state, six-month, 65-city tour. One stop is at the VFW Post 1170 at 107 Evergreen Road in Louisville on October 15, with a 7 p.m. start time. Food will be served starting at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are available for purchase at the VFW Post between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., seven days a week, from the bartender.
John Miller, who booked the show for the VFW, heard about Forness’ tribute show from a member who is a snowbird and saw him perform while in Florida. This person had given Dawn the VFW number and asked her to call if they were ever in the area.
“Earlier this year Dawn called me out of the blue and introduced herself,” Miller says. “She said she and her husband would be in the Midwest in the fall and had an open weekend on October 15. She asked if I was interested, and I immediately said yes.”
The family-friendly show appeals to all demographics, from kids to seniors.
Forness regularly performs at assisted-living and nursing facilities because he’s witnessed the impact music has on residents.
“Music is the last thing to leave us,” says Forness, who has had nurses tell him they have had residents who won’t speak for months, but will then sing along to songs.
This music therapy is precisely why Forness and his wife started a nonprofit called Music for Life Enrichment, through which they help raise funds to put music into state-funded nursing facilities.
Forness calls Johnny Cash the quintessential musician because he covered it all. “He did gospel music, rock and roll, country, storytelling, dark content, light content,” Forness says. “What a phenomenal career.”
For more information, visit jcashtribute.com.