Johnny Cash died on September 12, 2003 in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 71 years old. This Friday, February 26, Cash would be 84. And because it is much more fun to celebrate people’s birth than it is to mark their death, with Cash we are gifted with an exceptionally well-titled celebration of his life and music: The Johnny Cash Birthday Bash.
New York-based singer songwriter Alex Battles has been hosting and singing a wide range of the country icon’s catalog at the perennially sold-out Johnny Cash Birthday Bash since 2005. And this Friday and Saturday, Battles hosts the 12th annual party that will bring Cash and his music back to life at a new venue in Williamsburg, The Hall MP in Brooklyn.
I went to my first Johnny Cash Birthday Bash in 2009. I lament that I never quite got into Cash while he was still alive, or during formative portions of my youth; but at the party I found, to my delight, that through Battles–whose deep bass and highly-entertaining renditions of Cash’s music–I was given the next best thing, the closest approximation, I felt, anyone can have of watching the man himself perform live.
Battles says there are now numbers of Johnny Cash Birthday Bashes thrown everywhere, so he made sure to grab the domain johnnycashbirthdaybash.com to direct people to his party, which was first thrown at the now-extinct Lillie’s in Red Hook. Battles, who performs as Alex Battles & The Whiskey Rebellion, had already been hosting the Hootenanny Jamboree, a series dedicated to music from Hank Williams, Cash and the ilk. And shortly after Cash died, Battles decided to turn a gig he was playing in Park Slope into a tribute to Cash. “I realized I knew more Johnny Cash songs than any others,” said Battles.
It was a natural fit, and so Lillie (of Lillie’s) approached Battles about throwing the first birthday party at her bar. “At the time, that bar was open, and then not open, and we got there and we were like, I hope people come,” Battles tells me. “And at a certain point, my friend came up to me, who was working the door, and said, ‘You can’t fit any more people in this space. Good job. I’m going home.'” It was, suffice it to say, a really big success.
The next year Battles moved the party to Southpaw, and it stayed there until the venue closed. Next it migrated to Bell House; and this is the first year Battles will host the event in Williamsburg.
Battles says that at the beginning of each party, he has everyone in his sold out crowds introduce themselves to their neighbors and sing “Happy Birthday Johnny Cash!” so that “everyone gets the feeling that everyone is Johnny Cash,” Battles says. Singer, actress, and comedian Linda Hill–who has worked with legends like Robin Williams and George Carlin–serves as the night’s June Carter Cash, and will perform songs like “Jackson” with Battles. At the end of the night, Battles gets an assist from The Dock Oscar Gospel Quartet & Anna Sbano as well.
But beyond Cash’s hits, Battles plays outside the expected catalog. “I want to give the funnest Johnny Cash night possible,” says Battles. “We play as may hits as we can but every year we try to throw in numbers from different records. For whatever reason this year I was like, I wanna do songs from Bitter Tears: Ballads of The American Indian.”
That sounds intense, but it’s the same thing Cash would do at his own shows, Battles tells me–keep the audience guessing by performing not just his hits, but by digging deep into his entire rich cache of music. “I look at Johnny Cash’s set lists and it’s not like he played the greatest hits every time, he came out always going though old stuff and putting out new things,” says Battles. “I was like, let’s keep this thing fresh to the best of our ability. And that’s what we do.”