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Tapping into the growing legend that is Johnny Cash

Jim Yorfido’s polished tribute show to the Man in Black rolls into Elmira Legion Saturday night

When Joaquin Phoenix donned the sunglasses and guitar to play Johnny Cash in 2005’s Walk the Line, it sparked a frenzy of renewed interest in the Man in Black. One man who started his tribute show just as the frenzy was dying down was Jim Yorfido – performing tonight (Saturday) at the Elmira Legion.

“All my friends were saying, ‘Hey man, you’re missing the boat,’ because everybody and his uncle was doing Johnny when the movie came out,” he laughs from his home in Fort Erie. “I said, ‘I don’t care if I missed the boat. I’m doing it because I like it, and if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it good.’ Obviously it worked out, and only the good survive.”

Such wasn’t necessarily the case in 2006. “The legend had grown so big that you and my mother could go out and do Johnny and June, and you guys would fill the place,” says Yorfido.

“I remember there was a guy here in Fort Erie, he was naturally a John Denver tribute guy, but he was doing Johnny. … I remember his quote, he said, ‘I don’t really try to sound like Johnny, I just do the songs.’ We try to sound like him, and we do the songs.”

With his deep, full voice, Yorfido does indeed sound like Johnny Cash (although he says it’s his hair that originally had him pegged for the job). While Yorfido has been performing for years, and kept a few Johnny Cash songs in his repertoire, it was only in the last decade that he turned his attention on capturing Cash. Even before Walk the Line, Yorfido saw that Cash’s prodigious late-period output (notably his American albums with Rick Rubin) has heightened his profile.

“I didn’t even know they existed – I didn’t play for a while,” he says of the American series. “I get to this bar, and we’re setting up, and this young kid says, ‘Hey – you gonna do Johnny Cash?’ I’m thinking, ‘How does he know I do Johnny Cash?’ That’s when I started to realize there’s a whole new audience for Johnny.”

Unlike many iconic entertainers who can comfortably coast along on their songs from 40 years ago, Cash never stopped evolving. From the hellraiser who hung out with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, to the Folsom and San Quentin Prison days, to the vulnerable, soulful late-period work, there’s been an enormous amount of shading in that freight train of a voice. Since his start in the 1950s, he generated 55 studio albums, two iconic live albums, and a steady stream of posthumous releases that rivals even Tupac.

“He just kept rolling – I’m still impressed,” says Yorfido. “Who the heck records that many songs? You have to learn them all, you can’t just record them. It’s incredible, his staying power and stamina in the business.”

Indeed, the past decade has seen a broadening of the public understanding of Cash, through Walk the Line as well as a revealing, bestselling 2013 biography by Robert Hillburn. “None of that was in the forefront when I was young,” says Yorfido. “You didn’t hear anything about his lifestyle, or the stories of how he wrote his music. There are a bunch of variables that you appreciate way more once you’re more mature, and you can see what the heck he really went through.”

What is it about Johnny Cash that fueled such a long career – and a mystique that continues well after his death in 2003?

“It’s all got to do with his charisma,” says Yorfido. “You can be yourself and you don’t really know how charismatic you are, but people were just drawn to him like crazy. Even doing the tribute, you can feel it when people talk to you. They know you’re not Johnny, but you’re as close as they’re getting tonight.”

“A Man in Black Tribute to Johnny Cash and June Carter” will hit the Elmira Legion (11 First St. E.) Saturday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $30, and can be booked ahead of time by calling 519-669-2932.

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