Holding a black guitar, dressed in black and maintaining a solemn attitude, Gary Phelps stepped to the microphone.
He looked into the audience and addressed the crowd in the same way he has for decades. Before he played a note of famous hits such as “I Walk the Line” or “Ring of Fire,” he gave a short introduction.
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” he said.
Phelps, a Franklin resident, has been transforming into his country music hero for almost 40 years. On weekends and for special events, he dons his black outfit and picks up his guitar. His voice changes into Cash’s trademark tone, and the cadence slows to molasses.
He’s added other voices to his repertoire — John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart and Richard Nixon. But his act hinges on the songs that Cash made famous.
“It’s paid off by making me happy. I’ve made a little bit of money, not a lot, but around town people know me from that,” Phelps said. “This has helped me stay satisfied, and it’s helped me have a lot of fun.”
Though he has lived in Franklin for nearly his entire life, Phelps was born in Mississippi in 1960. He attributes that to part of his connection to Cash.
A distant cousin may even be related to the singer.
“I am a true-blooded Mississippian. I’ve always been in love with (Cash’s) music but also his image. He represented a lot of the things I grew up with, coming from the South,” Phelps said.
Phelps was a student at Franklin Community High School when he first tested his ability to do impersonations.
“I was a teenager, and I was bored with pingpong and TV and things like that,” he said. “I’ve always been a jokester and had a sense of humor and thought I’d try to impersonate.”
In the mid-1970s, impersonators such as Rich Little and Frank Gorshin were pop-culture icons. Watching TV one night, Phelps was struck while watching a mock-up of Cash.
“Johnny Cash was still cool, he had just come off his TV show. I thought that would be funny to do because I was in it for the comedy,” he said.
Phelps took guitar lessons and learned Cash’s biggest songs, such as “Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Most were fairly simple, so the only aspect of his act left to perfect was Cash’s unique way of singing and speaking. He added a black suit and started performing on the southside.
As a senior in high school, he even traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to record an album of Cash and Elvis Presley songs.
“There are a lot of soundalikes and a lot of lookalikes, including me. But there’s nothing like the original,” he said. “I always shoot for 97 percent of the real thing and try to maintain an image of Johnny Cash.”
Phelps met Cash twice, and in his wallet carries a faded photograph of himself shaking the musician’s hand.
Phelps has performed at private parties and events, been included in the Johnson County fair and Indiana Masonic Home and community festivals. His tours have taken him from northern Indiana to Mississippi and all over the Southeast.
His regular gig is at the Story Inn near Nashville. On the venue’s rustic stage, he plays before packed crowds every few months.
Phelps is one of the venue’s most consistent draws, said Rick Hofstetter, owner of the Story Inn.
“We have horsemen ride down here from the Brown County State Park by the droves,” Hofstetter said. “The cowboys love him. So do the Harley dudes.”
Phelps stays true to the message and the meaning of Cash’s music, only occasionally censoring some of the more crude language and references to drugs and violence.
For example, he performs “A Boy Named Sue” but removes the profanity.
“I try to keep a family show. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing at a bar with drinking or in front of a group of little old ladies, I keep it clean,” he said.
Click here to watch him sing and play!