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September 25, 2022

The Man in Black Meets Elvis at the Raven

Tribute show by Healdsburg musician returns to where it began

It’s been five years since Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley last took the stage in Healdsburg. That changes this Saturday, Aug. 27, when Steven Kent brings them back to town with his Cash & King show on the Raven stage. 

Okay, so it’s not really Johnny Cash, and it’s not really Elvis— that probably goes without saying. Cash died in 2003, and Elvis in 1977, but Steven Kent Barker is still going strong, and he’s not yet another Elvis impersonator. The Healdsburg-based performer has had a lifelong enthusiasm for these two pillars of American music, and proudly lays claim to meeting them both. 

Using the shortened name Steven Kent, the 61-year-old singer/songwriter has worked for years as a country musician, many of them in the Phoenix area at a Western theme park and event center called Rawhide. 

So there was a touch of irony in Kent’s meeting with one of his idols, at Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California of all places. “I was friends with Earl Poole Ball, the piano player in Johnny Cash’s band—and I’d been asking him for years for a chance to meet Cash. One day in 1990, I spied him behind a fence at Knott’s Berry Farm, and said, ‘Hey Ernie—how about meeting Johnny today?’

“He looked over at me and said, ‘Sure. Turn around.’ I did, and looked up and there’s Johnny Cash, right behind me. He and June Carter had just shown up in a golf cart. I think my knees buckled—he looked about 12 feet tall, and stuck out his hand.” 

Kent shies away from talking too much more about this meeting, and his similar incident of shaking hands with Elvis backstage in Las Vegas when he was a teen. But these stories are part of the “Cash & King” show, a combination of covers of the classics from each ground-breaking artist. 

“I tell stories about the songs, where they came from, how they almost didn’t get recorded—that’s what makes this show different than a regular tribute show; I have some history,” said Kent.  

Both Cash and Presley were recording artists for Sun Records, a ground-breaking Memphis label that also recorded Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, as well as multiple Black artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Ike Turner. 

That Million Dollar Quartet was a chance meeting in the Sun studios late in 1956 when Elvis—by then already well on his way to stardom—dropped by a Carl Perkins’ recording session when Cash and Lewis were in the room. The foursome gathered around a piano, and Sam Phillips—the owner of Sun Records—turned on the tape. 

Though long rumored, the informal recording wasn’t released until 1981 in Europe and in the U.S. in 1990, and it even spawned a Broadway play recreating the memorable session in 2011. By that time, Kent had already incorporated at least half of the fabulous foursome into his own performances. 

With his strong baritone and country feel, Kent has long included not only Presley and Cash in his repertoire, but Orbison, Ray Charles, Hank Williams, George Jones and even Dean Martin, among many others. But the focus for this “Cash & King” show is on the two musicians whose names have become synonymous with Americana of the second half of the 20th century. 

Kent’s connection to Presley’s music is more than a gimmick. Not long after the King died, Kent attended the annual Elvis Week festivities in Memphis, held in the first week of August to mark the passing of Presley, at only 42 years of age on Aug. 16, 1977. Moved by the widespread tributes in the city of Graceland, the palatial house where Elvis lived and died, he wrote a song called “Would He Believe,” a country rocker that poses the questions, “Would he believe that he’d be around so long, and the whole wide world would be singing his song?”

“It’s kind of like a Christmas song—it’s played every year around the time of Elvis’s birthday (Jan. 8) and Elvis Week in Memphis,” said Kent. It’s the centerpiece of the Dream and Believe album Kent recorded in 2012, and he’s amusingly proud of the “61 cents” royalty he gets when the song is streamed.

Eventually he decided to pare down the Million Dollar Quartet concept to just Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley and premiered it at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, then a few months later at the Raven Theater in his adopted hometown of Healdsburg (where he’s lived since 2013). The show was on Oct. 22, 2017, just two weeks after the Tubbs Fire overran Santa Rosa.

“The last time we did this show was in 2017, right after the horrible fires. It started out to be a cancer benefit… Then the fire happened, and we all agreed we should turn this around,” said Kent. It became a benefit for a PTSD survivors’ group, and they sold the place out. “It was quite a night because we invited a lot of people that had lost everything. They came up to me afterward and said, ‘I can’t tell you how much we needed this.’” 

For a couple years afterward, Kent and his band toured the Cash & King show around the west, and were prepared to reach a wider audience when, in 2020, the COVID pandemic shut everything down. Now, it’s time to dust off the arrangements: The moody, wide-ranging repertoire of Johnny Cash comprises the first half, and after the intermission are  the Elvis rock classics.

In light of the release of the Baz Luhrmann film, Elvis, last month, the King is having yet another renaissance; and of course, Cash’s legacy too has only grown with the years. Kent is ready to take the stage and bring them both back for an encore. 

As well as Kent’s own guitar and singing, the band includes Cindy Brillhart-True on vocals and percussion, Anthony Martinez on keyboards, Andy Bergman on bass, Robert Pina on drums and Tommy Lafferty on lead guitar. 

“We have a great time playing this music, and of course the crowds just eat it up like a chocolate donut,” Kent mused. 

“Cash & King” will be at the Raven Theater, 115 North St., Aug. 27; showtime is 7pm. Tickets at raventheater.org. 

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