Dark horse: Belleville native opens his mouth and out comes Johnny Cash

News-DemocratJune 9, 2013 

Every high school has a Bill Forness -- the teenage boy wearing black clothes, who just wanted to practice his guitar and start a band.

"Yeah, I was the dark horse. The guy in the corner writing after school, performing," said Bill, 38.

It was a sunny morning in May and Bill was back in Belleville, where he grew up. By his elbow was a pair of Wayfarers, every classic rocker's go-to shades, sitting on top of a pack of cigarettes. He keeps his brown hair tinted almost black and his sideburns long.

It's all part of his image of success.

Bill, a Johnny Cash tribute artist, will perform at Edwardsville's Wildey Theater on June 15 and at The Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis on June 16.He graduated from Belleville West in 1993, then got a culinary degree from Belleville Area College. Clear Glass Religion, a group of Belleville musicians, lasted from 1995 to 1999. Bill sang and wrote songs. He got a record contract at 21. He cut an alternative rock album and toured. His interest in that genre began to fade.

Until 2003, he kept a daytime job so he could afford to write and perform.

"I was juggling as best I could."

That was the year he made the decision to become a full-time performer. He left his job cooking at Far Oaks Golf Club in Caseyville and began playing with other musicians in a variety act. He sang Otis Redding, Willie Nelson, even some Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.

In 2010, a man in the audience proposed to his girlfriend while Bill sang the Cash hit "Ring of Fire."

"He told me that was as close as he could get to Johnny Cash. He'd seen me a couple times and was waiting for me to come back" so he could pop the question.

"I realized it meant something to people. Something more than just a song."

He quit the act to focus on the Man in Black and form a tribute band. Now, he and his band, One More Round, are on the road in a van filled with musical instruments.

For the past 1 1/2 years, he has lived in Maryland Heights, Mo., with his fiancee Diane Froellig. They met while he was performing.

Bill still has the dark vibe goin' on under the lights: black suit, white shirt, black boots. The voice is unmistakable, even if you're not a diehard fan. Bill opens his mouth and out comes Johnny Cash.

"I just naturally sing in those lower tones," he said.

True to Cash

There aren't many Cash tribute artists.

"Only about 20 full-time Cash performers around the world," Bill said. He grins when he mentions how many Elvis alter egos there are: "About 85,000."

The dark suit and hair are the only nod to looking like Cash. Bill doesn't talk like Cash on stage, or speak in the first person. He does wield his 1957 Gibson J45 (the same type of guitar Cash played) like it's an extension of his body, reminiscent of Cash, the neck one moment up close to his face, then aiming the guitar toward the floor as his fingers work the strings. The 1950s-style backup band is an upright bass player, drummer and lead guitar.

"I try to keep it as he did," Bill said. On occasion, he adds a horn section or a female vocalist for June and Johnny duets.

"I talk about his life, the stories of his songs. It's a tribute to him."

Bill performs Cash's U.S. hit list, some of his gospel work and occasionally a few surprises that earned Cash young fans in the 1990s, such as his renditions of Depeche Modes "Personal Jesus" and one of Bill's favorites, "Hurt," by Nine Inch Nails.

He knows about 100 of Cash's nearly 900 songs.

Bill performs mostly in the Midwest, but the band does gigs around the country.

In February, his tribute was turned into a huge theatrical stage production -- "The largest we've ever done," Bill said. It was held at the Pageant in St. Louis on Cash's birthday.

Born to perform

The odds may be stacked a bit in Bill's favor, if you look at his family.

His late mom June was named after June Carter Cash. His late dad, Hal, was a writer and lyricist, who helped his uncle, longtime Nashville songwriter and performer Larry Keith (Forness) write "We Got Love." "It was a hit for country singer Lynn Anderson in 1977.

"Larry worked on Music Row (in Nashville) and wrote for Kenny Rogers and Dr. Hook," Bill recalled. "He performed for my grandparents' 40th wedding anniversary. I was very young and I went up to the piano and didn't move. I was maybe 5, 6."

A great-aunt and uncle own the Lincoln Theater downtown. "I grew up in it," he said. "I was anywhere and everywhere in that place. ... I never performed there, but I'd love to do it." He also has an older sister, Tammy Jones, who lives in St. Peters, Mo.

Bill was 2 when he got his first guitar. His father gave him his first "serious guitar" later. His porch-pickin' grandfather taught him country songs. He turned to rock music as a teen.

His Uncle Larry said no one who knows Bill is surprised by his talent.

"The first time I saw him on stage, it was electric," said Larry, who still lives in Nashville. "He's a natural performer. He's good at everything he does."

As for Bill, his goal, for now, is to keep true to Johnny Cash and make a living.

"Eventually, I'll get an RV. I want to be able to live on it. I want to keep going," he said. "I want to be on the road and roll into a new town."

One More Round: A Tribute to Johnny Cash

Upcoming performances:

June 15 -- 8 p.m. The Wildey Theater, Edwardsville (with Bill Cherry as Elvis), $20-$37. For VIP and floor seating, call 618-830-4641. For balcony seating only, go to www.wildeytheatre.com

June 16 -- 7 p.m., The Sheldon Concert Hall, St. Louis, $15 adult/$10 children, sheldon.org

June 21 -- 7:30 p.m. dinner show, The Gathering Place, Sparta, $35, gatheringplaceoffbroadway.com or 618-965-3726

See a complete list of performances at jcashtribute.com

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