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Cavan band to replicate Johnny Cash's legendary prison gigs

Wednesday, 6th March, 2013 6:48pm

Story by Damian McCarney
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Cavan band to replicate Johnny Cash's legendary prison gigs

Johnny Cash fan Paul McCann walks the line.

Cavan band to replicate Johnny Cash's legendary prison gigs

Johnny Cash fan Paul McCann walks the line.

How would you feel about spending three nights in Mountjoy Prison, three in Wheatfield Prison and another in Loughan House? Milltown musician Paul McCann, and his fellow bandmates can't wait to briefly give up their liberty in order to recreate Johnny Cash's legendary prison concerts.

"It came to me one day," Paul tells the Celt, "what about doing a gig in a prison?"

Conscious that the Johnny Cash tracks went down a treat when his band played them at weddings, Paul added his wife and a few musician pals to the line-up and have an authentic Johnny Cash and Carter Family tribute act. Although they had a band, they had nowhere to play.

In 1968 'the man in black' played up to his rogueish reputation with a concert in San Quentin State Prison and over the years continued to play other jails including Folsom Prison, which had already been the subject of one of his biggest hit singles.

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Acting more out of hope than expectation, three months ago Paul sent off emails to the Prison Service about the possibility of emulating his hero. He was thrilled to get such positive responses upon meeting the governors of the country's major prisons.

"They were all incredibly enthusiastic to the extent that the governor of Mountjoy said to me, 'We would have come back to you earlier but the problem we are having is that we have three prisons - the men's, women's and training centre - and they all want you. How do you feel about doing three dates in Mountjoy?'" 

The seven piece are booked in to play the first of the gigs later this month in Loughan House, before heading down to Wheatfield in April and Mountjoy in May. Having got the prison governors onside the prison project has expanded beyond Paul's wildest dreams.

"The whole thing has become very exciting because I emailed John Carter Cash, who is Johnny and June's son telling him what we're doing and he's emailed back saying that he's interested in what we're doing and he'd be interested in joining us if he could work it into his schedule.

"Everything's been hugely positive. We have actually been talking to a couple of TV production companies about possibly documenting it, so it has snowballed from what was initially a ridiculous idea," says Paul, a reservations agent in the Slieve Russell Hotel.

In preparation for the Wheatfield concert Paul was shown around the prison in person. Just days later got to see the gritty reality of daily life in Wheatfield, while watching the TV documentary - 'Life on the Inside'. 

"I was surprisingly comfortable when we were there, and when I was watching it on television I was going - Oh my God, I am insane!" 

Paul's love of Johnny Cash was sown through his mother Maisie's record collection, and it was recently nurtured by his wife, Blathnaid, who bought him a whopping 63-album Johnny Cash set as a gift last Christmas. His admiration for Cash, means he will limit his performance to a "slight bit of impersonation".

"I have a lower barritone, bassier voice, and a good range to get some of Johnny's stuff but I genuinely don't think anyone could ever sing songs the way he sang them."

So does he think the inmates will be a tough crowd to please?

"There is a part of me really excited; there's part of me really terrified. I feel very comfortable when I am on stage most of the time, but it's going to be an hour and 15 minute set and I plan on banging out the tunes. Hopefully we'll be good enough they'll not tear us to shreds!"

The prison staff urged Paul to ensure that the female band members are comfortable going in because "the nastiest people in the country" will be there and could potentially shout some unsavoury comments.

"We've all been playing music for years so there's very few things that haven't been shouted at us," he quipped.

Paul hopes that once they complete the prison gigs they will be able to line-up gigs in more familiar venues, and have a captive audience in the figurative, rather than literal sense.

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