Omaha performer Brenda Allen recalls her friendship with Johnny Cash
Ring of Fire pays tribute to iconic singer-songwriter
I dare say there’s not a more instantly recognizable voice than that of the late Johnny Cash. You hear that deep Southern molasses growl and it’s unmistakably him and no one else. When I got wind of a Cash tribute show playing Omaha, I immediately thought of Omaha performer Brenda Allen because she’s the only entertainer in these parts that I know of who counted Cash as a friend. She also jammed with him and appeared on the same bill as him. Allen’s her stage name. Her real name is Brenda Allacher. I’ve interviewed Brenda before, once for a story about the play A Piece of My Heart which dramatizes the real life experiences of American women who were in the Vietnam War as nurses, aid workers, and entertainers. Brenda went there as part of an all-girl band. More recently I wrote an in-depth profile of Brenda that revealed her Cash ties. Both those stories can be found on this blog. For this new story I recount some of Brenda’s priceless Cash recollections, including an amusing, can’t-make-up-this-kind-of-stuff anecdote about the perculiar way they met. I also aounded out some admirers of Cash from the local music scene. Additionally, Ring of Fire cast member Erika Hall shared her thoughts about the man and his music and how adaptable his songs are to women interpreters like herself. The story appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
NOTE: Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash concludes this weekend at The Waiting Room in Benson.
Omaha performer Brenda Allen recalls her friendship with Johnny Cash
Ring of Fire pays tribute to iconic singer-songwriter
With impresario Gordon Cantiello’s new tribute show The Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash at The Waiting Room, it’s only natural to consider what makes the singer-songwriter of the title so enduring.
The king of hard-scrabble, honky-tonk infused with gospel, country, folk, blues and rock, became a living legend with his Man in Black and Folsom Prison Blues persona. His soulful music fit his wayfaring life. In his last decade Cash enjoyed a renaissance among artists and fans across the musical spectrum. The Reader solicited local musicians and music lovers to reflect on his work and found many admirers, but only Brenda Allen, aka Brenda Allacher, counted him as a friend. She also jammed with Cash and played on the same bill as the late star.
As a young vocalist-guitarist Allen was befriended by Cash, whose generosity she fondly remembers. Their memorable first meeting happened in 1958 when she auditioned for a guest spot on ABC-TV’s Ozark Jubilee at the Jewell Theatre in Springfield, Mo. She was 18 with some modest credits. Cash was 26 and already an established star.
“I did my audition and they said I could stay and see the show, which was starting in about an hour. My girlfriend and I were looking at three guys sitting in front of us. They weren’t regulars on the show.”
A dark-featured man in a black shirt caught Allen’s eye.
“I said, ‘God, he’s good looking,’ and my girlfriend said, ‘All three of them are good looking.’ Yeah, I wonder who that is?”‘
In the meantime the Jubilee’s version of a Hee-Haw couple, Uncle Cyp and Aunt Sap Brasfield, were rehearsing. A live elephant was part of the act. The animal did some tricks. Then the beast decided to pee.
“It sprayed 20 rows out. All the performers were in their costumes already. Everybody got hit. We were soaked,” Allen recalls. “We dived under the seats and I saw these long legs go running over top and I said, ‘Is he done yet?’ And this deep male voice said, ‘No, you better stay down there,’ and he went on by me. Finally I peeked up and they were putting saw dust all over the place, wiping seats down and I heard that same voice say, ‘Well, how high is the water, mama?’ I said, ‘It’s two feet high and rising.’ It was Johnny Cash.
“I popped up and said, ‘Are you staying across the street?’ ‘Yeah,” he said. ‘We’re staying there, too, you want me to bring you a shirt?’ ‘Hell, yes,’ and he gave me the key to his room and I got him a clean shirt.
“We sat and played guitars that night and talked about country music. That’s what started it. He was a perfect gentleman.”
After returning to her home in Lincoln, Neb. Allen stayed in touch with Cash. “I wrote him a letter and I got a letter back. I set him a picture of myself with my Fender Telecaster and he sent me his first song book. Without me even knowing it he sent my picture to Fender. That’s the kind of guy he was. Fender offered me a contract to model.”
She never signed. Instead, she landed with Marty Martin, who gained fame as Boxcar Willie. In 1962 the Marty Martin Show Featuring Brenda Allen opened for Cash at Lincoln’s Pershing Auditorium and Omaha’s Ciivc Auditorium. Later, as part of the Taylor Sisters, she was on the same program with Cash at a 1964 Wichita, Kansas show also featuring June Carter, Minnie Pearl, the Statler Brothers and Lefty Frizzell. “I’d say we were in damn good company.”
“Wonderful,” is how she describes sharing the stage with Cash. “He had such a charisma about him. You just felt there was something special about this guy.”
His interest in her career continued. “I told him I was looking to join a band and he said, ‘Why not get your own band together?’ He told me, ‘You’ve got a damn good voice.’ He and his lead guitar player Luther Perkins sat me down and said, ‘Brenda, stick with country music, you’re going to make it.'” The elephant anecdote always connected Allen and Cash.
As for his troubled personal life, she says, “Around the time June Carter entered the picture I started noticing things about John from when I first him. I knew of the wildness.” Depression and addiction took their toll in “the bad years.” Allen’s been there. At 74 the recovering alcohol is a karaoke regular. She sings some Cash tunes. His melancholy, redemptive ballads work well with female interpreters. Just ask Erika Hall, who performs Cash standards in Ring of Fire.
“He was real, he was gritty, he was flawed, he spoke for all of us who make mistakes, who feel pain, and he had a very unique gift of being able to tell that story through music,” Hall says. “He gives us something to grab onto when we feel like we are alone in our pain. I find it interesting how well some of those songs do transfer to a female singer. It just shows you how much emotion was present in that music.”
Hall, who essayed Patsy Cline in a recent Cantiello-produced show, says the Cash canon lives on because “he was able to speak to multiple generations in the same way.” She adds, “Pain is pain, joy is joy – those emotions don’t change from generation to generation and Johnny Cash was able to send those emotions through his music in a way every human can identify with. He spoke to us. That’s his legacy.”
That legacy cuts across boundaries performer Billy McGuigan (Rave On) says.
“There are very few artists who ascend above the labels used to classify artists. We love to say Elvis is the King of Rock, Michael Jackson is the King of Pop, Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings are undeniably country. But The Man in Black? He’s above all that. He started as an early rock artist, became a country icon, a television personality and influenced the undertones of rap music.
“There’s something about that voice. That deep baritone resonates the soul and goes beyond his just singing a song. Add in the driving rhythm of the Tennessee Three and you’ve got a magical formula.”
“The legacy of Johnny Cash stretches across seven decades,” Pacific Street Blues host Rick Galusha says. “His influence was felt at the onset of rock and roll at Sun Studios and into the new century with his historic American recordings with Rick Rubin. Any artist able to stay-on-top while maintaining a high level of artistic integrity is bound to be influential.”
“Who hasn’t been inspired by Mister Cash?” asks Rainbow Recording studio owner and Paddy O Furniture band leader Nils Anders Erickson, “He wrote and sang about what he knew and you believed him. It wasn’t just a song, it was the truth. Love the man, love the music.”
The Ring of Fire cast also includes Sue Gillespie Booton, D. Kevin Williams, Thomas Gjere and Zach Little. Cantiello directs with musical direction by Mark Kurtz and Vince Krysl.
The show’s remaining play dates are Saturday, August 9 at 1, 5 and 8 p.m. and Sunday, August 10 at 1 and 5 p.m. The Waiting Room is at 6212 Maple Street. For tickets, call 402-706-0778.
For details, visit performingartistsrepertorytheatre.org.
Billy McGuigan is an example of someone who always had talent to burn but for the longest time had little to show for it as a minor community theater performer and as a struggling garage band front man. But when his big break presented itself, he was prepared to take the opportunity and run with it, and a decade later he’s running to ever greater heights. His niche has been to parlay the continuing fascination with and popularity of rock icons Buddy Holly and The Beatles into successful shows he produces and stars in. I have been reading about Billy and his shows for years now and I finally had the chance to meet and interview him for the following story, though I have yet to see him perform. I will make sure to do that this year, as I want to write about him again. There’s more to his story than I was able to fit into the space allotted me and I look forward to going deeper next time. But the story posted here, which I did for Omaha Magazine, will still give you a sense for this young man and his passion and for the concerted journey he’s on to pay forward the musical legacy his later father left he and his brothers.
More Than Buddy: Billy McGuigan Expands on his Buddy Holly Shtick to Collaborate with his Brothers and Band in a Beatles Tribute Show
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Omaha Magazine (omahapublications.com/magazines/omaha-magazine)
After years of performing as Buddy Hollly, Billy McGuigan proves he’s no one-show wonder with his act paying tribute to the Beatles.
Undertaking a Beatles tribute show is no small order. Besides the task of replicating the sound of the most popular band of all time, there’s the matter of mastering the Beatles’ catalog – all 230 songs worth.
“It took us six months,” says Billy McGuigan, creator of Yesterday and Today, a Beatles tribute show he performs with two of his brothers. Yesterday and Today completed a triumphant third year at the Omaha Community Playhouse in January to prove the show’s staying power.
Yesterday and Today consists mainly of the band fielding requests from the audience and performing them. McGuigan and the band don’t wear wigs or attempt accents. He doesn’t want anything getting in the way of pure music immersion.
And thanks to their comprehensive preparation, the band is ready for any request that comes their way. Those who know McGuigan know he’d never settle for anything less.
“What I find remarkable about Billy is not only his talent and ability to sing and play just about anything,” says Playhouse music director Jim Boggess, “but his single-minded dedication to be true to whatever music he is playing. He will not rest until it is right.”
That same dedication, preparation and passion is what made Rave On, McGuigan’s renowned Buddy Holly act, the success it was, and Rave On paved the way for McGuigan’s Beatles’ tribute.
It’s no coincidence the Beatles were also favorites of McGuigan’s father, Bill, who passed on a musical legacy to his three sons.
Growing up a military brat, home was wherever his U.S. Air Force-indentured father got stationed, Having a dad who played guitar and dug the Beatles immersed Billy in all things Fab Four, especially Paul McCartney.
“All we did was sit and listen to music,” McGuigan said. “I remember McCartney’s ‘Tug of War’ came out and my dad going, ‘OK, you gotta listen to this. This is your first new McCartney album.’ He stuck headphones on me. I hear those songs now and l’m just like, ‘Ahhh, yeah.’ I mean, that was music for me. It was always there.”
The elder McGuigan died of leukemia in 1996.
“It was awful,” Billy said. “I was just starting out in life and we had that moment where we’d become friends. He was proud of what I was doing.”
Before the untimely death, the bonding forged through music continued in Omaha, where the family moved in 1990. McGuigan didn’t set out to pay forward his father’s music bequest, but he has. After dabbling in theater and fronting his own band, he found his niche with Rave On.
Replicating that success with Yesterday and Today meant getting his siblings to sign on, which took some doing. It meant leaving regular jobs for the uncertainty of show biz and being away from wives for weeks. Then there was McGuigan’s ambitious idea of learning the entire Beatles’ canon. Every time a new player joins the band it’s a crash course all over again, he says.
What distinguishes the show from similar acts is that McGuigan fields audience requests and asks folks to explain why the songs are special to them. Then his improv skills take over. McGuigan and his brothers also share their connection to the music and often reference their father on stage.
“Completely, because what we found out is it’s really a tribute to him,” says Billy. “This is the music he taught us. We would sit around and play these songs all the time. He created it. This is the inheritance we got.”
McGuigan’s road to becoming a rock star came after some less successful efforts at finding his voice. Colleen Quinn, general manager of Funny Bone, is McGuigan’s manager and business partner. She’s witnessed his progression from early days, which included attempts at improv comedy, bartending and fronting a cover band.
It was through Buddy Holly, Quinn says, that McGuigan finally found his niche.
“Billy connects with all people. That’s what makes him a charismatic presence,” she says. “He thoroughly loves performing Buddy and Beatles songs and it shows. He relishes hearing people’s requests and reasons for loving the music as he does.”
The Buddy role came after serendipity intervened for McGuigan while vacationing in London, where he and his wife caught a West End production of The Buddy Holly Story. He saw his future on stage.
“I thought, If I ever got the chance to do that I think that’s something I could do because he sings, he plays guitar and he gets to be a rock star. Thinking, never in a million years…”
Only a couple months later, he got a call from Boggess asking him to be their Buddy. He didn’t need to think twice.
But first there was the matter of an audition. McGuigan invited Boggess and artistic director Carl Beck to catch his band at a Benson biker bar. He recalled that night:
“So there we were, 10 people, all in leather, and then Carl and Jim and the band. We started playing ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and they (the Playhouse duo) left probably half way through, and I was like, This was my shot and I just lost this gig. I called Jim the next day and he said, ‘No, you got the job, you’re the right guy, we knew it right away.’”
Life hasn’t been the same since.
“Everything at that point changed,” said McGuigan, “and I don’t know why. It was like something clicked in me, and I’m going to take this role seriously — I’m not going to pull the typical Billy. I learned the script two days after I got it, learned all the music, went and got guitar lessons, which I’d never done before. I went to the gym before rehearsals even started. I lost 40 pounds. I was fit.”
He steeped himself in Buddy ephemera, reading books, studying films. Watching one documentary, The Real Buddy Holly Story, became a daily ritual.
“…that’s what I absorbed, that’s where my Buddy came from — that and whatever I could bring to it.”
He next appears in Rave On on Feb. 3-4, at Harrah’s casino. A summer amphitheater gig is in the works and the Beatles show returns to the Playhouse in December.
McGuigan is looking to hand-off Rave On to someone else so he can focus more on Yesterday and Today. He expects to direct The Buddy Holly Story sometime and to one day maybe take a leading role in a show like Jesus Christ Superstar.
Beyond that, it’s more touring. Quinn hints McGuigan may even be bound for Europe and Australia.
For now, McGuigan’s says the Beatles show has given him the time of his life.
“Every aspect of that show turns me on. When it works, there’s nothing like it. The music is great, it’s what I’ve always wanted to sing. Then you look over and there are your brothers, and then there’s your friends who have gone on this journey with you, and you have an audience getting (into it). How can it get better than that?”