GUITARIST GETS TO PLAY IDOL
FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER
Dan Miller reckons that when the producers of "Walk the Line" were casting the role of Johnny Cash's band mate Luther Perkins, Miller was one of about 50 tall, gaunt guitarists with acting experience under consideration.
But the Oak Park resident nailed his audition so cleanly that director James Mangold gave him the role on the spot, calling him "an amazing presence and a natural performer." It didn't hurt Miller's cause that in addition to his dramatic talent, he is a connoisseur of Cash's musical history and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the Man in Black and his backing band, the Tennessee Two. "Luther Perkins is an idol of mine," says Miller. "He played guitar with this simple, beautiful elegance. He was in some ways the backbone of the band and he's sort of legendary among country guitarists." Miller is the front man for the Detroit country rock band Blanche and for his former persona as the inimitable Goober of the now-defunct cowboy punk group Goober and the Peas. Miller has supported his musical career for years by acting in local commercials and industrial films. Though stepping from Detroit to Hollywood in a single stride seemed unlikely, Miller secured an audition by mailing the casting agent a videotape of himself playing a Johnny Cash song. "Dan doesn't need a guitar to act," Mangold told the Free Press in an interview last year after wrapping up filming of "Walk the Line.""His musicianship, coupled with his deep historical knowledge of Johnny Cash, made him an invaluable force on the set."
We asked Dan Miller to talk about five Johnny Cash songs he finds especially influential or inspiring. "Like many country and blues musicians, although this is rarely true in rock 'n' roll, Johnny Cash's recordings were vital throughout his career, right up until he died," Miller said. "But I'm going to talk about a few songs he recorded before 1968 - the year 'Walk the Line' ends and, coincidentally, the year Luther Perkins died."
"Don't Take Your Guns to Town": "A prime example of how Johnny's storytelling and Luther's barren yet elegant guitar combined to create a truly unique mood. Although hip-hop gets criticized for its violent lyrics, old country and blues songs - and before that, folk murder ballads - were ripe with violence. What sets most of Johnny Cash's songs apart, though, is that the violence is rarely glorified ... the dominant feeling he leaves you with is regret and the hope for redemption."
"I Still Miss Someone": "No clever songwriting tricks here, just a simple, sad and beautiful love song. As a special treat, I got to sing and play this song with Dolly Parton at Johnny Cash's home studio during a photo shoot to promote the movie. And again, Luther's understated guitar part perfectly complements the tone of the lyrics and Cash's voice."
"Home of the Blues": "Named after a record store Johnny Cash used to escape to when he was supposed to be out selling appliances door-to-door. Features a typically great Luther solo - he plays it as if he was teetering on a window ledge. There's another take of this song from the original session where Luther flubs the guitar-only intro and Johnny stops him and says, 'A little faster, Luther.' I think Johnny was worried about Luther's nerves, so he blamed it on the tempo instead of his nervous fingers. But what makes the song are these heartbreaking lyrics: "I walk and cry while my heartbeat/ Keeps time with the drag of my shoes/ The sun never shines through this window of mine/ It's dark at the Home of the Blues."
"I Was There When it Happened": "Johnny was reared on gospel music, but Sam Phillips discouraged him from recording it at Sun. Phillips did allow him to put this song on the first album, though, possibly because it was one of the few songs that Luther and bassist Marshall Grant sang background on. And they look pretty damn cool doing it on the Town Hall Party television performances from the '50s. We try to play this song twice in the movie, and are cut off both times - first by Cash's wife, Vivian, on the front porch of Luther and his wife, Birdie, played by my wife, Tracee, and later by a dismayed Sam Phillips at Sun. The song was written and originally recorded by a woman named Fern Jones, but Cash and the Tennessee Two slowed it down."
"The Folksinger": "Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds covered this song on their covers-only album, 'Kicking Against the Pricks,' and it's the only song they didn't need to inject their style into - a plodding, menacing, bitter song."