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Church of Cash channels 'immortal' Johnny Cash all year long

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Led by baritone-voiced Minnesota native Jay “Jayder” Kalk, tribute band Church of Cash is going five years strong. Kalk has traveled the world as the Man in Black, recently returning his cover act from Europe where he had to convince locals he wasn’t a native Texan, that Cash isn’t just country music — it’s American music all the way from the Rio Grande to Lake Superior.

As a full-time musician, Kalk tours with Church of Cash 250 dates each year, finding a creative outlet in his reunited band 3 Minute Hero when he has time. As Church of Cash, he’ll play brunch at Icehouse. He also frequents brunch at Hell’s Kitchen, and he's set to play the upcoming Cash Tribute at The Cabooze in January.

Mostly, though, he lives on the road where his voice stirs memories across multiple generations. Kalk remembers when his father would sing Johnny Cash songs while doing chores on the family farm. For those in the audience, the song reminds them of their youth, returning home from the war, and other memorable life events.

City Pages: How did you become a tribute musician?

Jay Kalk: I’ve been an original musician pretty much my whole life. In the ‘90s I was in 3 Minute Hero. In the early 2000s I was in a band called Warsaw Poland Bros. Then from 2007-2010 I lived in Hawaii and toured with Go Jimmy Go. I toured all over the world with those guys but it was cool because I lived in Hawaii. I’ve done thousands of gigs as an original artist.

When I was living in Hawaii we couldn’t tour all the time because it’s such a small island. I was working on being a solo guy, trying to make a little extra money where I would play new wave, Irish, a little country, and some originals and some Johnny Cash. Every time

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I would play the Johnny Cash people would put down their beers and start staring at me, so I thought: Maybe I should get a Johnny Cash band. As soon as I got it going it was instantly popular. These kids form Afghanistan and Iraq are coming back to the base there and they wanted to see American music—we were instantly popular.

It wasn’t long after that I moved back to Minnesota, so when I came back I called some old friends and started going for it. This is my first foray into cover music.

CP: You chose someone with a very large catalog.

JK: Cash has over 1,500 recorded songs. I have plenty of stuff to pick from. Currently I do about 140 songs in the repertoire. With this kind of thing it’s more of a showcase set so I’d rather play the 2-3 hour hits that everybody knows than dig out the deep cuts.

CP: How do you feel about the impersonation angle?

JK: There are the tribute guys who look like them, do the hair like them, and try to talk like them. I’m not that guy. I wear a nice black suit and comb my hair back but I do not look anything like Johnny Cash. I have a soft face, his face was very hard. My hairline is receding, he had a nice thick mop.

What my band offers is that my voice is very close. I’m not trying to sell it as come see Johnny Cash reincarnated. I’m selling it as, it sounds like Johnny Cash when I sing. Do I do my set like a 1968 prison show? Not really. 

CP: How many of your shows are in the Twin Cities?

JK: Maybe about 5 percent.

A lot of the shows I’ll play are in small town America: ballrooms, a lot of legions, VFWs, that kind of thing. They want to provide entertainment and their members are veterans who grew up loving Johnny Cash so it’s real special to them.

I just played a Moose Lodge in Albert Lea. It’s a lot of it is special events like dinner-and-a-show, county fairs, and small town “Local Days.”

CP: Have you met any Cash rivals?

JK: They have been friendly so far. I’ve met a handful and it’s an interesting concept. It’s like two guys having a McDonalds franchise opening up on Eat Street.

CP: Do you talk cordially or competitively?

JK: I’ll try to open an area but if it’s already owned by another Johnny Cash tribute show I back off and focus on a new area.

CP: Do you get fans who want to shoot trivia with you?

JK: I get a lot of two degrees from Johnny Cash stories. I met a woman who was Johnny Cash’s neighbor when she was a little girl. When he would come home from tour he’d take all the neighborhood kids out for ice cream and they’d talk about whatever 5-years-olds talk about and he’d be quiet and listen to them and then drive them home. She didn’t know he was a big star. How cool is that? He’s on the road, getting autograph requests, talking business, whatever.

Then come home and decompress by listening to the stories of 5-year-old children; it’s probably very refreshing. You’ll never hear that in a book, it was a firsthand story from his neighbor. I met another guy who was a neighbor in a different home and this guy took one of Johnny Cash’s mirrors when he moved out. He probably combed his pompadour on for many years. Those are cool stories.

CP: How does the fact that Cash is deceased give the shows a different feel?

JK: That’s a hard one to answer. People cannot see Johnny Cash anymore. Big fans are going to have to see a tribute if they want to get that feeling live. I don’t know if I’m as charming as Cash, he was a cool guy. He cared for people, he was humble and nice. I hope to use that as an example for my own life and touring capabilities.

I look up to him and admire him and I feel what we’re doing is we’re carrying on the torch for Johnny Cash by making his music fresh and relevant to our audience. Maybe it’s even lucrative for the Cash family because the band reminds the audience of their love of his music and are buying CDs again.

I notice that the audience we cater to is a lot of older folks but there are young people who come to see us play and know all the songs. That just lets you know that Johnny Cash’s music won’t die because of time, it will be immortal.

Church of Cash

When: 11 a.m. Sun., Nov. 22.

Where: Icehouse.

Tickets: Free; more info here.