For almost 50 years, Johnny Cash captured the ears and hearts of audiences through his music.

Inspired by the Man in Black’s frank demeanor, no-nonsense style and passionate message, Franklin resident Gary Phelps has spent nearly as long emulating him.

Phelps has built a side career performing the songs that Cash made famous. He combines mimicry and musicianship to pay homage, dropping his voice down and taking on a Southern-slow cadence that is startlingly similar to his hero.

On the 40th anniversary of his doing his Cash act, Phelps is celebrating with a busy summer of shows. He’ll be performing from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Story Inn, 6404 S. State Road 135, Nashville.

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» What has it meant for you to be doing this for 40 years?

“In a small way, it’s a big dream come true. I get to do what I love to do, and I get to just travel and meet people, and share the gospel of Cash.”

» How did you get started doing this?

I was born in Mississippi, and moved up to Indiana when I was 6 months old. I’ve always loved Cash’s music. He represented a lot of the things I grew up with, coming from the South.

» Why is Cash’s music so important to you?

I took it up in high school to learn a Johnny Cash routine. I’ve tried to perfect over 40 years. Some kids are jocks, some kids are geniuses, some kids get in trouble. I was a geek. So I wanted something to keep me from being bored, so I wouldn’t get in trouble.

»Why does Johnny Cash’s music resonate with you?

We have a lot of parallels. He was from Arkansas, I was from Mississippi. His family picked cotton, my family picked cotton. I can’t ever forget being from down there because it keeps me humble. I think he was the same way.

How did you master this style of music?

I can’t read music, so I play by ear. I used to sit down next to the record player, and through doing that and playing with other guys, I learned it.

Who influenced you along the way?

My mother. She used to be my manager, and she’s really the reason I’m doing this because she pushed me toward it as a kid. I just started doing it as a hobby, to be funny. She has great business experience. She was the one who had me start doing guitar lessons. I’d like to thank all of the fans and all of the people who have supported me, especially my family.

What have you realized about performing this music over the years?

I still don’t know the whole repertoire of Cash’s music. I’m still learning songs.

If you go

Gary Phelps

Upcoming performances

Sunday: 1 to 4 p.m., Story Inn

June 19: 1 to 4 p.m., Story Inn

July 3: 1 to 4 p.m., Story Inn

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.