Metro-East Living

Belleville’s own ‘Man in Black’ will pay tribute to Johnny Cash at Lincoln Theatre

Bill Forness played in rock bands when he was young, but his mother wanted him to go in a different direction.

“Her name was June,” he said. “She was named after June Carter, and she said I should be singing the old-time country music, and she was right.”

If only the late June and Hal Forness could see their son now.

Bill, 45, of Belleville, is a Johnny Cash tribute artist who uses his deep baritone voice to perform “Jackson,” “I Walk the Line” and other hits at casinos, theaters, festivals and senior centers all over the country. He will bring his One More Round band to the historic Lincoln Theatre next weekend in downtown Belleville.

“It’s so exciting,” he said. “I haven’t ever played in Belleville.”

The theater is operated by Dave and Sandy Schoenborn, Bill’s first cousins twice removed. His great aunt and uncle, Betty and Richard Wright, Sandy’s parents, owned it for nearly 30 years.

“A couple of tribute artists who have performed at the Lincoln have told me that (Bill is) one of the best in the country,” Dave said. “I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never actually seen him perform.”

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Belleville native Bill Forness is a Johnny Cash tribute artist who performs all over the country. His next show will be Sept. 28-29 at the Lincoln Theatre in Belleville. Provided

Taught himself to play guitar

Bill grew up in Belleville and graduated from Belleville West High School in 1993. He got his first “real” guitar at age 13.

“I knew I wanted to be a singer when I was probably 7 years old,” he said. “I sat down next to my Uncle Larry when he was on stage at Fischer’s Restaurant, playing at my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary. That was in 1981 or ‘82. I wanted to do what he was doing.”

Larry Forness was a singer-songwriter who went by the stage name “Larry Keith” and wrote songs for Kenny Rogers, Lynn Anderson and Dolly Parton. He’s now a Nashville lawyer.

Bill played in rock bands as a teenager and later performed acoustic music at restaurants, hotels and bars in the St. Louis area, including a regular gig at the Chase Park Plaza. He recorded songs on an independent St. Louis record label with a band called “Clear Glass Religion.”

Bill also studied culinary arts at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville and explored a career in the restaurant business before returning to the stage 17 years ago.

“(Being a chef) just wasn’t a good fit,” he said. “I wanted to get back to music.”

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Johnny Cash sings with his wife, June Carter Cash, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Feb. 18, 1985, in this Associated Press file photo. Ron Frehm Associated Press

Wardrobe is mostly black

Bill has been portraying Johnny Cash for nearly 10 years. He has traveled to Nebraska, Florida, Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota and other states and spent a lot of time in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, a tourist town outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“In the world, I only really know about 20 (Johnny Cash tribute artists) who do it professionally full time,” he said. “It’s a really small number, and I don’t know why. He recorded over 1,500 songs, and his career was long. He started in 1955, and he sang all the way up until he died, Sept. 12, 2003.”

“At Folsom Prison” is Bill’s favorite Johnny Cash album. He can’t narrow down a favorite song.

Bill plays a 1964 Gibson guitar. On the wardrobe front, he has it easier than Elvis tribute artists, who often spend thousands on elaborate jumpsuits covered with bling. Johnny Cash was known as the “man in black” because he usually wore black from head to toe.

Bill is married to Belleville native Dawn Forness, 43, and has a stepson, Patrick, 17. Dawn serves as Bill’s business manager.

“He works amazingly hard,” she said. “He wants to do (the tribute) just right and perfect, even the way Johnny Cash says a certain word in a song. He’s always strumming a guitar. He’s always got something that he’s practicing. .... He doesn’t walk around pretending to be Johnny Cash by any means, but he wants the show to be as authentic as possible.”

Dawn used to work in real estate and later accounting.

“As Mrs. Bill Forness, one of my jobs is keeping his black clothes black and making sure his wardrobe is nice and tidy and sharp-looking,” she said. “People always say, ‘You must be June Carter,’ and he’ll say, ‘She’s my June Carter.’ That’s our joke.”

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Dawn Forness, right, serves as business manager for her husband, Bill, who travels all over the country as a Johnny Cash tribute artist. She used to work in real estate. Provided

Show set at Folsom prison

Bill’s show at the Lincoln is called “The Folsom Prison Experience.” It will be a combination of music and theater, patterned off Cash’s legendary 1968 performance at Folsom State Prison in California. That’s where he recorded “At Folsom Prison.”

Actors will be dressed as inmates and guards. Tribute artists will portray June Carter and the Carter sisters, Carl Perkins and The Statler Brothers.

But it’s a concert, not a re-enactment, and Bill won’t limit songs to those performed at the prison.

“(The audience) would shoot me if I didn’t do ‘Ring of Fire,’” he said. “I wouldn’t make it out of the theater if I didn’t sing that song.”

Bill points out that Johnny Cash altered his usual wardrobe at Folsom. He wore a white shirt with his black pants, black vest and long black coat.

Lincoln show times are 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28 and 2 p.m. Sept. 29. The theater is at 103 E. Main St. in Belleville. Tickets for reserved seating cost $25 to $35. For more information, call 618-233-0123 or visit the website at www.lincolntheatre-belleville.com.

“The fact that (Bill) happens to live nearby is a bonus,” Dave said. “He fits in perfectly with our concert series. We do a mix of country and rock music, tribute artists versus the real artists.”

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Johnny Cash tribute artist Bill Forness, center, sometimes plays in a trio with upright bass player Mike Graham, left, and guitarist Travis Mattison. They also are part of his One More Round band. Provided
Teri Maddox has been a reporter for 35 years, joining the Belleville News-Democrat in 1990. She also teaches journalism at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. She holds degrees from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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