Franklin musician returns with tribute to Johnny Cash

For a Franklin artist dedicated to the music of the Man in Black, the past year has been rough enough to give him the blues.

Gary Phelps had built a significant local following performing in tribute to Johnny Cash. But like most other musicians, the pandemic that dominated 2020 left few opportunities for gigs.

So Phelps had to find ways to bide his time.

“For me, performing is something I look forward to all the time. When all of that is taken away from you, you have to adapt to it,” he said. “Everybody had to adapt to it, and find things to occupy your time.”

The creative space the pandemic provided, as well as the return of live music this year, has Phelps looking forward to an eventful summer. He has booked regular shows at the Story Inn in Brown County, and his calendar has filled up with other special events and performances.

To celebrate the Fourth of July weekend, he’ll have a three-day run of shows, starting today and extending to Sunday.

“Being able to perform again, it just feels good,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to being up there again.”

Phelps has been paying tributes to Cash for more than 40 years. He first started dabbling in impersonations as a student at Franklin Community High School in the 1970s. Watching TV one night, he was struck while watching a mock-up of Cash. He took guitar lessons and learned Cash’s biggest songs, such as “Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”

With practice, he perfected Cash’s unique way of singing and speaking. He added a black suit and started performing on the southside. In high school, he traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to record an album of Cash and Elvis Presley songs.

Phelps met Cash twice, and in his wallet carries a faded photograph of himself shaking the musician’s hand. He has performed at private parties and events, and been included in the Johnson County fair and Indiana Masonic Home and community festivals. His tours have taken him from northern Indiana to Mississippi and all over the Southeast.

Heading into the spring of 2020, he was preparing for another big summer of performances. Those plans ground to a halt with the onset of the pandemic, but Phelps knew that eventually, the music would go on. He would be ready when it did.

“Since you couldn’t go out to perform, you worked on your act. I went through all of my songs, and got ready for when you could go back out,” he said.

He expanded his show with more rarities and B-sides, then added some gospel-influenced tunes.

During the pandemic, Cash posthumously released an album. “Johnny Cash and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra” featured Cash’s original vocals, set with new arrangements by the London-based orchestra. Phelps was enraptured, and tweaked songs from his own performance to reflect the different sound of the album.

“It sounded good to me, so I bought the album and rearranged a few things,” he said.

From March to the end of the year, Phelps was only able to do three performances. But as venues have opened up and events are back on, his calendar is filling up. His primary showcase is the Story Inn, the landmark bed-and-breakfast located about 10 miles south of Nashville.

On weekend afternoons this summer, guests can find him strumming out chords and channeling his inner Man in Black.

Other upcoming shows include a Christmas at the Farm event at Stream Cliff Herb Farm in Commiskey on Oct. 15.

“There’s a good mix of shows over the next few months,” he said.

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Gary Phelps

Who: A Franklin musician who performs a tribute to Johnny Cash

Upcoming shows

  • Today: 4-7 p.m., Story Inn, 6404 SR 135, Nashville
  • Saturday: 6-9 p.m., Story Inn
  • Sunday: Noon-3 p.m., Story Inn
  • July 31: 2-5 p.m., Story Inn
  • Aug. 21: Noon-3 p.m. and 4-7 p.m., Story Inn
  • Aug. 28: 2-5 p.m., Story Inn
  • Sept. 25: 2-5 p.m., Story Inn
  • Oct. 15: 11 a.m., Stream Cliff Herb Farm, 8225 S. CR 90W, Commiskey