Being the only all-female Johnny Cash tribute band in the world is bound to raise a few eyebrows, or perhaps in this case a few black cowboy hats. "We have people coming up to us all the time asking how can girls sing that low," laughs Suzi Fray, lead singer and guitarist for the Johnnys, a trio who are on their first trip to the U.S. from their home base of Nelson, New Zealand.
The Johnnys will be one of the featured artists Saturday at Ventura's fourth A Tribute to the Music of Johnny Cash, a festival dedicated to the Man in Black showcasing 12 local and overseas tribute bands on two stages as well as rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson and country star Carlene Carter.
"They call us a tribute band but we are not one in the traditional sense," says Fray. "We still stay true to his songs but we do it in our own way."
Forgoing the bass baritone of Cash's distinctive vocals, the three-piece band — who dress in a distinctive punkabilly style — instead infuse a twist of sweet-girl harmonies and an eclectic approach to Cash's signature tunes (such as a reggae-tinged "Walk the Line" and a psyched-up version of "Jackson").
"I think Dad would have loved an all-girl band doing his music," says Cindy Cash, daughter of the music icon, and co-producer of the event. "He was always a great supporter of women musicians."
With the familial connection to Ventura (Johnny Cash moved to the coastal county in 1961 with first wife Vivian Liberto, and when the couple divorced in 1967, Liberto remained in the area raising their four daughters), Cindy, who moved back to Ventura five years ago, feels the festival's location is appropriate. "I will be doing an exhibit of some family memorabilia from the time he was here, including his guitars, awards and letters he wrote," she says.
"This event has really grown over the past four years," says producer-promoter Ross Emery. "People really get into the spirit dressing from all in black to greaser-rockabilly style. We stay true to the era with a 1950s-style pinup pageant and a classic car show. And beingFather's Dayweekend, you get fathers and grandfathers coming."
As the festival's headliner, rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson has been enjoying a career renaissance with her Jack White-produced 2011 album, "The Party Ain't Over," and her firecracker performances as special guest on Adele's sold-out West Coast tour last year. The singer who once toured with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash appreciates her new legion of fans. "I love the way they have also embraced the lifestyle with the hair and makeup and vintage clothes.
"For me it's like stepping back in time, except for one thing — the tattoos and the body piercings," she laughs. "That's something I still can't quite get used to."
Speaking from her home in Oklahoma City, Jackson admits she never really got to know the reclusive star but has vivid memories of his electric early performances. "Elvis would always come get me when Johnny was onstage and take me to the wings saying, 'We gotta hear this guy.' Even back then he predicted that Johnny would be the biggest star in country music," she recalls.
"I was thrilled when Cindy asked me to be a part of this. There are bound to be a few versions of "Ring of Fire," including mine that day," laughs Carter, who is currently paying homage to her prodigious country music legacy by recording a compilation album of Carter family songs in Los Angeles.
Carter, who refers to her stepdad as "Big John," will perform a solo acoustic set including "It Takes One to Know Me," the song she wrote as a birthday present for Cash when she was 17 (and recorded by her for the first time on her 2008 album, "Stronger").
"He has a massive base of fans that miss him and want to feel close to what he used to bring to them, and this is about as close as we can get, "Carter says. "As his family we have inherited his legacy and it's an honor to be able to celebrate it with his fans."