Beginning Tuesday, May 6, TPAC (Tennessee Performing Arts Center) will transform Nashville into our nearby neighbor Memphis circa 1956 as the Tony-winning musical 'Million Dollar Quartet' brings to life the now-legendary Sun Records recording session of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
As they make their way toward Music City, I recently had the chance to speak with John Countryman, James Barry, Cody Ray Slaughter and Scott Moreau who play 'The Killer, 'The King of Rockabilly', 'The 'The King of Rock 'n Roll' and 'The Man in Black respectively. What follow is the latest in my recurring Q&A interview series, RAPID FIRE 20 Q.
Up first was John Countryman, who plays Jerry Lee Lewis:
JONATHAN PINKERTON: First off, I have to say...You have THE BEST last name ever for a guy who's playing one of the legendary members of the Million Dollar Quartet. The irony is, from what I've been able to find out, prior to landing the role of Jerry Lee Lewis, you hailed from the Annapolis, Maryland area. I understand you were in a band, The Dirty Names. Please tell me there was some Rockabilly going in even then?
JOHN COUNTRYMAN: The boys in the Dirty Names played what we liked to call rock and soul. Heavily influenced by Stax records and Rolling Stones, there was definitely some throwback vibes. Although I wouldn't call it "rockabilly" there were quite a few songs that some good old Jerry Lee Lewis boogie woogie left hand licks fit right in.
JP: Through a mutual friend, I've met Levi Kreis, who won the Tony for his Broadway portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis. Before joining the cast, had you seen 'Million Dollar Quartet'?
JOHN COUNTRYMAN: I was unable to see the show in New York with the original Broadway cast. I always regretted not seeing it then. I already knew of the actual recording session the show is based off of, so I was very excited when I heard that they had made a Broadway show about that momentous day.
JP: Jerry Lee is larger than life. He's the only surviving member of The Million Dollar Quartet. Have you met or spoken with him? If so, how was that, if not, what's one thing you'd ask him?
JOHN COUNTRYMAN: I never have met The Killer, although I would love to someday. The closest I ever got was when my parents surprised me with tickets to a concert of his for my 16th birthday. It was right after his Last Man Standing album came out and it was a very special time. If I could meet Jerry Lee, I would want to know about all the early touring that he and so many other greats artists did together. I can only imagine how much hard work and fun those time were.
JP: Not long before you received word that you'd landed the Jerry Lee Lewis gig in the National Tour of 'Million Dollar Quartet', you also got married. Congrats on your upcoming one-year anniversary. I understand she's got a 'MDQ' connection as well?
JOHN COUNTRYMAN: Thank you so much for the congratulations. It has been such a special time for us both. She got the merchandise job for the show after we found out I got the role. Now she travels with us on the tour and we are having an extended honeymoon while we travel the country together.
JP: An extended honeymoon, that's awesome! OK, my time with you is nearly up, so one last question. The show not only features songs recorded by all four legends, but several songs in which you guys back each other for vocal solos. Is there a song one of your co-stars is featured on that you're particularly fond of?
JOHN COUNTRYMAN: I really do enjoy doing the gospel numbers in the show. There is something so special about singing parts like that. Picking one of the quartet members over the other is so hard to do, but I will say that Kelly Lamont playing Dyanne, Elvis's girlfriend, has a version of /I Hear You Knocking/ that really brings the house down every night.
Then it was time for me to chat with James Barry, who plays Carl Perkins in 'Million Dollar Quartet':
JP: I understand you grew up in Connecticut. Was there any Rockabilly played in your house?
JAMES BARRY: Oh there's some hillbillies in New England! My folks were 4 year olds in 1956, so they were more Beatles generation music fans. The Beatles introduced me to Carl Perkins, though. They covered more songs by Carl than any other artist in their career. Besides The Beatles lots of Simon and Garfunkle, Everly Brothers, Patsy Cline, The Who- a great mix of tastes from my folks.
JP: I understand you are a bit of a Rock and Roll enthusiast. Since you're playing the 'King of Rockabilly', here's a slightly off-topic question for you. Name your favorite Wanda Jackson song. I say slightly off-topic, but she is the "Queen or Rockabilly' and as I'm sure you know, she toured with, and dated Elvis back when both were just starting out.
JAMES BARRY: That iron skillet song makes me laugh every time, but I'd have to say the song that made me a fan of hers was 'Hard Headed Woman'. That grit in her voice, and the astonishing Roy Clark guitar solo- classic. Worth mentioning since you're a fan, Corey Kaiser our bassist and Patrick Morrow our drummer have both played with Wanda Jackson in recent years!
JP: Good to know...and yes, 'Big Iron Skillet' is one of my favorites too. What can I say? I work Wanda Jackson into the conversation any time I can. Back to Carl...It's famously known that while Elvis was credited as writing 'Blue Suede Shoes', it was Perkins who actually wrote it. I gotta know...BEFORE taking on the role, did you own a pair of blue suede shoes?
JAMES BARRY: Nope! Never did--I was more of a punk rocker with Chuck Taylors and Doc Martins.
JP: I was fortunate to have met Carl Perkins back when he wrote autobiography 'Go, Cat, Go'. What is something you'd like to have asked him?
JAMES BARRY: I wouldn't know what to ask him. I know what I'd tell him if I had the chance, though. I'd tell him how much he meant to me and thank him profusely for being one of the architects of my biggest passion: rock 'n’ roll. Without Carl, the musical landscape of the last 50+ years is impossible to imagine.
JP: What is one song from the show that someone else is featured as lead vocalist that you'd like to switch places with for that song alone?
JAMES BARRY: Oh man- I love the cash stuff. I'd love to sing 'Folsom Prison Blues, but I couldn't hold a candle to my buddy Scott Moreau's rendition.
The mention of his co-star served as the perfect transition to my next conversation as I posed a few question to 'MDQ''s Johnny Cash, Scott Moreau:
JP: What's the first Johnny Cash song you ever remember hearing?
SCOTT MOREAU: I'm pretty sure the first Johnny Cash song I ever heard was 'Ring Of Fire' when I was quite little. It stuck with me because of the sound of the trumpets. The first country song I ever heard was Johnny Horton's 'Battle of New Orleans'. I grew up listening to all of my parent's records, and that was a favorite of my dad's. I remember liking it because it told a very specific story, and I thought that Horton's voice sounded like a character from Disney's 'Songs of the South'; funny that Horton and Cash were such good friends before Horton's untimely death.
JP: We here in Music City like to claim our favorite artists as our own. Johnny is no exception. He called the community of Hendersonville--just outside Nashville--his home for many years. Is there ever any added pressure to step up your game when you play a town that so closely identifies with the role your portraying?
SCOTT MOREAU: I have actually made a pilgrimage to Nashville before each year of tour for the last 3 years, intent on seeing all that I could that related to Johnny's career there. Each time I have visited Johnny and June's graves at the Hendersonville Memorial Gardens, and I made my first trip to the ruins of the house on the lake this past August. I wouldn't say I feel MORE of a need to step up my game in Nashville; I think being there in general and being surrounded not only by fantastic musicians, Cash's family and people that knew him is definitely intimidating. I take this role, his music and his legacy very seriously. There are Cash fans everywhere, and my worst nightmare is if even one person in that audience as a Cash fan is disappointed in my performance. I can never be EXACTLY like Johnny, but I hope that I can be as close as humanly possible. And, that people realize my great love and reverence for the man, and I bring that into my performance. That said, if I knew that any of the Cash family were in the audience it would certainly make me nervous; but my job is to go out and play the role the only way I know how, and hope that they are pleased and that I paint Johnny in the most pleasant and accurate light I can. Along with that, the thing I strive for most is consistency. I try to do the same show every time I walk on stage. So, there may be important people in the audience, but I give them the same show I give every day.
JP: Well, not to get your nerves going, but it's likely some of Cash's family will be there during the Nashville run of the show. Continuing on that subject, until I began composing my questions for you and your 'Million Dollar Quartet' co-stars, I didn't realize that I had ties to all four legends. Johnny and June shopped at the Nashville Tower Records/Video/Books stores on West End back when I was fresh out of college. I've always said he and Miss June were two of the nicest 'celebrities' I've ever met. What would you like to have talked to Johnny about if you could go back in time and arrange a meeting?
SCOTT MOREAU: I would have loved to visit Johnny and June at their house in Hendersonville. I think I would have just liked to sit and have an every day conversation. I think too many people approached him with questions, interviews, looking for answers. I have read so much about his life, and often stories contradict each other. I like to compare his life story to the movie 'Big Fish'; there are often just no simple or clear cut answers. So, rather than ask a bunch of questions, I would have loved to sit down at the dinner table and just make conversation; talk about music, what he was working on, and I'm sure the stories would flow from there. I would be so nervous and in awe I probably wouldn't be able to ask any questions anyway.
JP: Before taking on the role of Johnny Cash, you've played other Johnny's....You starred in the titular role of 'Johnny Guitar' in the musical of the same name, and you played Johnny 'Leadville' Brown in a dinner theatre production of 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown'....aside from those stagedoor Johnny's what's been another of your favorite roles?
SCOTT MOREAU: I've played a ton of roles that I have loved. I mean, because I have such a connection to Cash, I would be lying if I said it wasn't at the top of my list of favorites. But I have certainly had others I loved doing. John Dickinson in '1776' is at the top of my list (I don't often get to play the villain), as was Orin (the Dentist) in 'Little Shop of Horrors'. I've also loved doing 'I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change', 'Johnny Guitar' and 'Ring of Fire'.
JP: What song from the show, that you don't sing lead vocal on, would you like to have at just once?
SCOTT MOREAU: Well, though I sing bass for the entire show, I'm actually a lyric baritone. So, I don't get to sing a whole lot out of the bass realm while I am on tour, just to keep my voice in the right place for the show. I would love to get a crack at 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man'; it's a great song, and I love all of the versions I have heard by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings.
Rounding out my time with the men of 'MDQ' was Cody Ray Slaughter, who plays Elvis Presley:
JP: So, you've been with the national tour of 'Million Dollar Quartet' since 2011. For those who may have seen you outside the realm of the show, and even for those who may have seen 'MDQ' previously, do you feel you're constantly bringing something different to the performance?
CODY RAY SLAUGHTER: I try and keep it as fresh as I can. It can be difficult when having worked on the show for a few years now, but I have fun up there.
JP: That fun definitely shows through. Ok, so even though Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi and lived in Memphis, as I mentioned to Scott earlier, we here in Nashville like to claim our favorites as our own. Elvis is no exception. After all, he recorded several albums just off Music Row at the historic RCA Studio B. Heck, we even have his famed gold Cadillac at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Are there any Nashville sites you plan to visit while here on tour?
CODY RAY SLAUGHTER: I haven’t seen Studio B and I would love to make it over there!
JP: Sadly, I was a kid when Elvis died, but I randomly met Priscilla when Lisa Marie was performing a few years ago. I know you were named by Elvis Presley Enterprises as the 'Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist' in 2011. Have you had the pleasure of meeting any of the family? And..if you could have met Elvis, what is one thing you'd definitely ask him?
CODY RAY SLAUGHTER: Yes, I met Priscilla when we played Los Angeles the first year of the tour! That was definitely a highlight. =And I’ve also met many of his friends along the way. If I could have met Elvis, why do YOU think people love you so much?
JP: As a born-and-raised Southerner, do you think you have an advantage over your co-stars in making your portrayal of Elvis more authentic?
CODY RAY SLAUGHTER: I think you could say that… Everybody is incredibly talented in this show and I love and admire them, but there is an authentic-ness I think I can bring having been raised in the same environment that these guys came from.
JP: Is there one song performed during the show that features someone else's vocals that you'd secretly like to give a go at least one night on stage?
CODY RAY SLAUGHTER: 'I Hear You Knockin’' (ha!) No, I love 'See You Later, Alligator.'
See you later, indeed. On that note, my RAPID FIRE 20 Q with the stars of 'Million Dollar Quartet' came to a close, but that's just the beginning for Nashville's theatre community as 'Million Dollar Quartet' takes to the stage at TPAC's Jackson Hall for eight performances. Beginning Tuesday, May 6 thru Sunday, May 11 with 7:30 p.m. shows Tuesday-Thursday, May 6, 7 & 8. On Friday, May 9, there is an 8 p.m. curtain. The show rounds out it's Music City stop with matinee and evening performances Saturday and Sunday, May 10 & 11. To purchase tickets, CLICK HERE. Not in Nashville but hoping to see the show in a city near you? CLICK HERE for remaining dates of the current national tour.
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